A former corporate banker, David Hunt is a co-founder of Cainthus, a Dublin-based company formed with the purpose of digitizing agriculture. Hunt also is a member of the faculty at Singularity University in Silicon Valley.
Full disclosure: I spent several days at this year’s Alltech ONE Ideas Conference working with the company to produce a series of podcast interviews with many of the presenters. I talked with David Hunt about a recent Op-Ed by Alltech Founder and President Pearse Lyons suggesting that Lexington seize the opportunity to become the hub of agricultural technology, research, development, finance, education and more.
Click here to hear the audio version of the interview: http://bit.ly/2jFUpyf
Q: David, please share your observations.
A: I suppose I can offer a view because I’ve been attending this conference since 2011, and I’ve been speaking at it since 2013. My first time in Lexington was 2010 as a guest of Dr. Lyons. I’ve been tremendously impressed by the extremely high standard of agriculture here, principally your horse industry, but the degree to which this is an agricultural area and an agricultural community. And it’s a pleasant place full of lovely people. But the principal thing that keeps bringing me back here is the Alltech Conference that happens every year. I’m such a big supporter of it because it is pretty much the only conference in the world that you get all the major agricultural companies from all parts of the world descending on a single location for a concentrated event for a number of days. The ability for my company to do business and make sales here is incredible. This conference is effectively a nexus of Eastern, Western, African, Middle Eastern agriculture. You just can’t get over the number of different countries and voices represented here. So when I look at what a conference like this means for the city of Lexington, I think it’s a tremendous opportunity to further embrace the conference, capitalize on it and try and get the city and the community to benefit more from it.
Q: I went to the Accelerator session where a selection of 10 late-stage start-ups had an opportunity to give a little bit more than an elevator pitch — it’s an elevator pitch with visuals, if you will — to an audience of hundreds of potential investors. There in the back of Rupp Arena was a row of soundproof booths housing interpreters — Portuguese, Spanish, Chinese, you name it, with quite a bit of showbiz going on on-stage at the same time, which made it both interesting and entertaining. I don’t think most Lexingtonians have any idea that this is going on here.
A: For me that’s a shame. I’m a very proud Irishman. If something like this was going on in Ireland and the whole country didn’t know about it, I would be extremely concerned and disappointed. If I was the mayor of Lexington, and I never will be, I would want the whole of America to know that this major international event of such internationally high standard is occurring here in Lexington, because the ability to use that message to draw other business interests into the city and into the local economy that wouldn’t otherwise come here is just immense. Again, I do have the same frustration in Ireland.
One of the things that frustrates me about Ireland, and if I was in Lexington I would be similarly frustrated about this, Ireland is world-class of very few things. One of the few things that we are world-class in is agriculture. This ag-tech sector is exploding at the moment with $3.2 billion invested this year. The fact that all that money is going into ag-tech and there is no clear and defined home where ag-tech companies can come to grow and work their business and network with agricultural people is just such a big missed opportunity. I would love if Ireland was trying to position itself as the global hub for ag-technology, but Ireland doesn’t have something like the Alltech Conference.
Q: Why is it important to cluster all of those things in one place?
A: One of the great things about technology is the greater other technologies interact with each other and the more the problem-solvers trying to collaborate together to solve these problems interact with each other, the greater the potential for them to make a greater product and a better solution. In Lexington you’ve got the likes of Jeffrey Bewley with a world-class research barn out there. Any ag-technologist that is doing something in livestock, for them to be able to come to Lexington and leverage that while also collaborating with varied different other ag-tech companies, the cross-pollination of knowledge and the potential new ideas that can emerge from that is just tremendously exciting. Yet, no one in Ireland is doing anything about that and it appears that no one in Lexington is doing anything about that either, which is just bizarre to me.
Q: Let’s talk about that Pearse Lyons Accelerator that I mentioned and what that event-within-an-event brings to a city like Lexington.
A: There are a tremendous amount of investors and venture capitalists visiting the city to see all those startups. They have so much money and the only reason they are here is to see ag-tech startups at the Pearse Lyons Accelerator. There are people in Lexington who aren’t even aware that this event is on and this amount of money is coming into town. If it wasn’t just Alltech marketing this event, if it was everyone in this area who benefits from marketing it, how many more people would be here with more money? I even just had a dinner in a restaurant here and our service took forever because they were understaffed. And I was sort of like, ‘They knew the conference is on, they knew how busy everything was going to be, there should have been extra jobs for somebody this week. Why isn’t the city doing more to make the best of the opportunity that is presented by having a genuinely world-class event that draws billions of dollars of potential investment to a concentrated area for a concentrated time?’
Q: I mentioned that you are a member of the faculty at Singularity University, founded by Peter Diamandis and Ray Kurzweil with the express purpose of educating people about the impact of exponentially improving technologies. Has this vision found its way into agriculture?
A: It’s just starting to. One of the interesting things about agriculture as an industry is it has been generally reluctant to adopt new technologies that are proven in other areas. While historically that has been a bad thing, what it’s actually created now is that some of these new technologies are so proven and advanced that their ability to transition into agriculture with lower risk is quite large. So when you ask me, ‘Are these exponential technologies starting to come into agriculture?’ Well, yes, in a big way they are. For example, our company installs CCTV systems in dairy barns and then uses artificially intelligent agents to track and monitor all the individual cows. It’s not the humans who are working out what the cows are doing, it’s a machine that is working that out. That is much, much cheaper than using humans to do it. That exists today. People are paying for it. It’s a commercially available product. It is quite science fiction, I know, but any dairy farmer who is using our product will tell you, ‘We’re not really farming how we use to. Now what we’re doing is we’re reacting to the animal’s needs as determined by this computer algorithm in the cloud.’
Tom Martin's Q&A appears every two weeks in the Herald-Leader's Business Monday section. This is an edited version of the interview. To listen to the interview, find the podcast on Kentucky.com. The interview also will air on WEKU-88.9 FM on Mondays at 7:35 a.m. during Morning Edition and at 5:45 p.m. during All Things Considered.