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Sparking collaborations between science, tech and farming – Belinda Clarke, director of EDP Business Awards winner Agri-Tech East

Belinda Clarke, director of Agri-Tech East. Picture: Greg Beeton

Belinda Clarke, director of Agri-Tech East. Picture: Greg Beeton

Greg Beeton

Dr Belinda Clarke wants to be a “catalyst” to turn science and technology innovations into useful tools for the food and farming industries. She told CHRIS HILL how this drove her leadership of Agri-Tech East, winner of an EDP Business Award.

Agri-Tech East: Agri-Tech East: "Vege-bots" could handle and cut iceberg lettuces with the same care as human workers. Picture: Agri-Tech East

A bustling supermarket café off the A11 is perhaps not the ideal venue for a business profile interview.

But this was the only way to squeeze a meeting into Belinda Clarke’s diary – which says a lot about the way the director of Agri-Tech East goes about her business.

Firstly, the hectic schedule is an indicator of the energy devoted to making industry connections and sparking new partnerships across East Anglia.

But our location, in the arable farming heartland spanning the “technology corridor” between Norwich and Cambridge, is also a perfect illustration of how she sees her role – acting as a central hub to unite the region’s world-leading research institutes with its agricultural expertise.

Agri-Tech East is a “business-focused cluster organisation”, bringing growers together with scientists, technologists and entrepreneurs to improve the competitiveness and sustainability of UK farming.

These efforts were recognised at the 2016 EDP Business Awards, with a victory in the Knowledge Catalyst category, sponsored by the UEA.

While other café diners are clinking teaspoons against coffee cups and contemplating their weekly shop, Dr Clarke explained how her career began in the laboratory, first as a plant scientist at The Sainsbury Laboratory working on crop diseases, and then at the John Innes Centre (JIC) in Norwich.

But it was at the Royal Norfolk Show where she experienced her “epiphany” – realising her true calling was to communicate science to a wider audience.

“I was on a trajectory to be a career researcher, but half way through my PhD on starch manufacture in peas and potatoes, I was asked to work on the JIC stand at the Royal Norfolk Show, to explain the process of photosynthesis in plants,” said Dr Clarke. “That was the epiphany for me, when I realised there was this massive world of science out there and I would rather have a broader but less deep exposure, rather than a research scientist, which was a narrow, deep dive.

“The idea of translating scientific ideas to a different audience was born.

“I think there is a moral imperative for researchers to demonstrate the impact of their research, because it is funded by the taxpayer. And I think it is really critical that researchers appreciate that the target output for their research are real businesses, employing real people who sometimes have real debt and real challenges.

“By the same token I think farmers need to be open-minded about change and the opportunity to do things differently.

“These two sets of people bring their own perspective and their own expert knowledge. They need to listen to that expert knowledge and we need that catalyst to help things along – and that is what gets me out of bed in the morning.”

After reaching this conclusion, Dr Clarke started freelance science writing and was employed as a science liaison manager at the Norwich Research Park, promoting its work to other scientists, the public, industry and policy-makers.

During this time she wrote the “Science on your Doorstep” column for the EDP and helped set up “farmer-scientist dialogues” in 2003 which were a fore-runner for Agri-Tech East. By 2005 she was advising the East of England Development Agency (EEDA) on its investment in life sciences, and then led the biosciences strategy at the agency now known as Innovate UK.

Despite the evolution of her career – from research to communication and inspiring commercial connections – Dr Clarke said she would always love the thrill of fundamental science.

“I still see myself, rightly or wrongly, as a scientist, but I try to suppress the tendency to fall in love with any new innovation and try to be objective about it,” she said. “I can still be enchanted by new research but I try to temper that by saying: ‘What is the impact, and who might benefit from this, and who could I introduce to accelerate its practical application?’

“Fundamental discovery science is critical to the UK’s knowledge economy, but my personal interest is how we can build on that and turn it into something that can demonstrate impact.”

THE GROWTH OF AGRI-TECH EAST

Agri-Tech East was founded in 2014 to create a “global innovation hub in agri-tech” by bringing together farmers, scientists, technologists and entrepreneurs.

Its main annual showcase is Agri-Tech Week, which this year runs from November 6-10, a series of events, workshops and discussions held across the east of England to highlight new innovations and foster new relationships between businesses, researchers and government.

Director Belinda Clarke said: “At our first Agri-Tech Week, the organisation had about 45 members. It now has 110, spanning the whole value chain from discovery research through to farm production and processing.

“There are agronomists and ‘technical enablers’ like soil sensor companies and drone companies, and then there is a whole bunch of networks and commercial service providers. That is the bit I am most proud of – that we have managed to get that whole chain so well populated with such a diversity of large and small organisations.”

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