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UK plans £500m agtech park as Brexit puts inward investment into focus

Start-ups from the US and Asia have already expressed interest in the Cambridge project, which is set to welcome its first occupant by 2022, SmithsonHill managing director Emma Fletcher told Agri Investor.

A focus on where to source food and investment post-Brexit are among the factors that have catalysed support for a £500 million ($675 million; €568 million) agtech park project unveiled today to be built in Cambridge, UK, according to the executive in charge of delivering the plan.

Emma Fletcher, managing director of SmithsonHill, told Agri Investor that a lack of awareness that great technology could also be applied to agriculture and create lucrative investment opportunities had held back UK agtech in recent years, but that increased attention paid to the country’s competitiveness once it leaves the EU was changing the picture.

“How we grow our food, where it comes from, how much we pay for it: Brexit is putting all this much more into focus,” she noted.

The park is expected to offer more than 1 million square feet of lettable employment space and adjacent agricultural land that firms can use to test investment proposals. It will be developed by SmithsonHill, a joint venture between Russell Smith Farms and real estate firm Hill Commercial Investment.

Though it will strive to provide impetus to the local agtech scene, it is also in discussions with start-ups and investors from overseas. Fletcher said two US firms and an Asian company had expressed interest in the project.

“Cambridge is the tech capital of Europe,” she added. “Key to the city is tapping into all of the different sciences clustered here in a very, very small location. It’s a tight-knit high-tech community.”

She expected the UK in general, and the park in particular, to build particular strengths in automation, machine-learning, crop breeding and the Internet of Things, owing to technologies Cambridge has already developed and could apply to the agriculture sector.

Fletcher said a lot of start-ups had written in support of the planning application, which has now been submitted. Subject to approval, construction is set to start in 2019 or 2020, with the first occupant expected to move in by 2022.