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The Victorian Food & Ag Tech sector: What do universities have to offer?

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Advances in digital and engineering technologies are increasingly important for maintaining a competitive agriculture industry. Ag-tech promises to reduce input costs, increase product quality, make connections across supply chains, account for environmental services, detect disease and pests more quickly, and much more. Australia has the opportunity for a strong home-grown ag-tech sector that exports solutions overseas and create new jobs in rural areas. Whilst there is great promise in ag-tech, the reality is that there’s a long way to go for the Australian ag-tech sector to reach its potential. This panel session will discuss the role of universities in supporting ag-tech innovation and contributing to growing the Australian ag-tech sector. Universities are a powerhouse of new ideas and technologies, but it isn’t clear how these ideas are translated into practice in the agriculture sector. Similarly, farmers and growers are often unable to justify the time and cost to engage in early-stage technologies emerging from research. The panel will explore what does and does not work, and what might be needed for universities to contribute to the growing Australian Ag-tech industry. 

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Meet the panelists

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Dr. Greg Harper, Lead, NorVicFoods™

Gregory Harper is a biological scientist who focusses on the translation of scientific discoveries into commercial, environmental and social outcomes. He is Director of Business Development and International Engagement (India) for the Faculty of Veterinary and Agricultural Sciences within The University of Melbourne. During 2020/21, he led the development of the NorVicFoods® venture in northern Victoria, which seeks to enhance university-industry collaboration in the regional agrifood sector.
Gregory has spent his career working in the global science community and has professional expertise in management of public and private R&D funds. He was awarded a PhD in Biochemistry from Monash University in 1985 before undertaking a Fogarty International postdoctoral Fellowship at the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, USA. Before returning home to Australia, he was a Wenner-Gren Fellow at Uppsala University in Sweden, working on cellular biochemistry. After completing R&D work on human therapies for inherited metabolic disease in Adelaide, Gregory transitioned to agricultural and food sustainability R&D through his recruitment into the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation. Over the subsequent years, he held research leadership roles, and executive roles in the CSIRO, an executive director role within the Victorian State Government, a Non-executive Director role on the board of Meat and Livestock Australia, as well as hands-on roles in his family business, Crondar Pty Ltd, and in the various charities. 

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Dr. Rebecca Wells, CEO, Mallee Regional Innovation Centre 

Appointed by The University of Melbourne as inaugural Chief Executive of the Mallee Regional Innovation Centre in 2019, having previously worked at the Australian Table Grape Association, La Trobe University and Mildura Rural City Council and based in Mildura, Rebecca brings an extensive array of skills to the role. Formerly appointed by Bendigo and Adelaide Bank as a member of the Community Bank National Council and by the Victorian State Government as a member of the Mallee Regional Partnership, she has extensive governance and community development skills. Rebecca has over 10 years of Non-Executive Director experience, including 6 years as Chair of Merbein & District Community Bank Branch of Bendigo Bank and 5 years as Chair of Northern Mallee Leaders Inc. She is also a member of the SuniTAFE Smart Farm Horticulture Industry Advisory Group. 

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Margaret Ayre, Rural Innovation Research Group, the University of Melbourne
Dr Margaret Ayre holds a Bachelor of Forest Science and doctorate (History and Philosophy of Science) from The University of Melbourne. Her doctoral thesis was on the development of contemporary, cross-cultural and sea management strategies on Aboriginal estates in North-Eastern Arnhem Land, Northern Territory. She has worked as: a land/water management planner (1994/5); Lecturer with the Bachelor Institute of Indigenous Tertiary Education (1995/7); Senior Policy Officer (2002/07) on the development of national oceans policy; Postdoctoral Research Fellow with CSIRO (2007/10) in collaborative water planning; and (since 2010) as a Senior Lecturer in the Faculty of Veterinary and Agricultural Sciences at The University of Melbourne where she works on transdisciplinary projects investigating responses to climate variability, effective catchment management and agricultural and regional development. An applied social scientist, her research interests are in the production of scientific knowledge and the relationship between science, technology and society in natural resource management policy and practice, agricultural development and Indigenous community-based land and sea management. She has undertaken collaborative research on ag tech transitions with the Australian cotton and sugar sectors and with colleagues at DairyNZ. 

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Peter Moller, Business Development Manager - USA, Rubicon Water 

Peter is the Business Development Manager for On-Farm Technologies and is responsible for managing the launch, commercialisation, and business development of Rubicon Water’s FarmConnect solution (on-farm) into the North American market, based in California. Prior to this, Peter accepted an assignment with Rubicon’s business unit in North America where he was Rubicon Water’s Business Development Manager/National Sales Manager for North America, relocating from Australia and based in California from 2017 to 2020. Previously as General Manager – FarmConnect, Peter was responsible for creating Rubicon Water’s business unit which delivers a commercial solution via FarmConnect’s automation, control and monitoring system for On-Farm water use efficiency, based in Shepparton Victoria (2010 – 2017). Prior to joining Rubicon Water in 2010, Peter was responsible for creating businesses, launching products, and developing new markets for smart water technologies used in the sustainable production of food, fibre and beverage, using less water to grow more crop.

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Professor Mike Stewardson, Professor in Hydrology and Water Resources, The University of Melbourne (Chair)  

Mike leads the Water Environment and Agriculture Program in the Faculty of Engineering and Information Technology at The University of Melbourne. His research focuses on sustainable water resource management and ecohydraulics. He is leading the bid for a ONE Basin CRC and is the Director of the Mallee Regional Innovation Centre. Over 30 years, Mike has advised regional, state and commonwealth agencies on environmental water management. He is currently a member of the Advisory Committee for Social Economic and Environmental Science with the Murray Darling Basin Authority.

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