Why agriculture venture-building should focus on bioregions

Rebalancing Global Agricultural Systems

Left unaddressed, global agricultural systems will continue to exert massive pressure on natural ecosystems, undermine food security and exacerbate the effects of climate change and biodiversity loss. Drastic, scalable solutions are needed: regenerative agriculture is one of them, as we discussed in our previous article, alongside our four core principles to achieve Restorative Cultivation outcomes at DSV. These principles included developing technologies to rapidly restore ecosystems, growing more food on less land, and creating or using evidence and metrics to convince farmers to rapidly switch to products and services of restorative cultivation. 

Last but not least among these was our principle around “Bioregional Tailoring” which considered all of the above in the context of the similar ecosystems around the world and the agricultural ecosystems they support. By focusing on bioregions, we might easily scale outcomes from one part of the world to another, for maximum impact in the least amount of time.

What is a Bioregion?

Whilst we prioritise venture as a means to achieve scale, regenerative agriculture requires contributions of expertise from many different stakeholders to be successful, and it needs to be done in a local context that is sensitive to local needs. However, that doesn’t mean that innovation needs to be confined to one place. 

This is where the concept of bioregions comes in. They share important geophysical and ecological characteristics and natural processes that can transcend national borders, e.g, tropical wetland, highland forest and deserts: These are ecological spaces that look, smell and feel similar, whether it’s a Boreal forest in Canada or the same type of forest with different species in Sweden. Bioregions transcend political borders, being integrated by the features of landscapes and watersheds, but they also unite people and cultures across national borders, who share similar cultures, language, and agricultural and ecological stewardship practices. 

A single bioregion can be contiguous across a vast territory and continent, but they also compose shared categories, where similar bioregions of the same category can exist on opposite sides of the world, with no direct link. While these separate bioregions are home to completely different species, they are often similar on a meta-level, meaning that different species fulfil the same category/class of role (an ecological niche), whether it’s flora or fauna. This form also extends to the agricultural activities and substrate within each bioregion, e.g. wide-open dry fields that are well suited to grain cultivation, or wetlands that are prone to heavy rains and are better suited for rice paddies. By developing restorative cultivation solutions for rice in India, it’s likely that similar problems could be solved for a farm growing rice in an unlinked but similar bioregion in Brazil. 

Why Building in Bioregions Makes Sense for Venture

As we discussed in our last article most farmers are unlikely to switch to regenerative agriculture tools and technologies - at least not at the rate or scale that is required - without financial incentives. It is for that reason that we focus on science-backed venturing as the means to deploy regenerative agriculture through evidence-backed products and services. However, we aim for any venture we create to rapidly achieve the most impact it possibly can, in multiple ecosystems simultaneously, within a few years of launch. We believe that ventures focusing on a bioregional strategy will be far more likely to quickly reach that scale and sustainable profit, and thereby secure big, high quality wins for people and the planet. 

In other words, we think a company that targets the big crops - with the largest markets across the most bioregions - will add the most value in terms of people fed, lands restored and commercial regenerative agriculture outcomes. Such thinking also advances the twin aims of profitability and sustainability: regenerative outcomes become promoted at source, for example, through farmers or business owners, that lead to wider adaption across supply and value chains. As more people see benefits more quickly, more stakeholders will switch to a new standard, shifting the production system to create more sustainable livelihoods for more industry participants, and stronger food security for everyone.

Building Bioregional Collaborations

There simply aren’t enough companies scaling up solutions focused on the right things in the space of regenerative agriculture. To deal with this, Deep Science Ventures has brought its novel approach to venture creation and technology development - its “scoping” methodology, which identifies key business and technical constraints, iterates and generates technological approaches, and arrives at many possible optimal solutions before progressing onto team formation. This increases the chance of us building the right company for the outcome we wish to achieve, and that we focus on solving the right problems. 

The DSV Agriculture team has expanded this scoping process with bioregional thinking, to ensure we build companies that can do the right things across and between similar bioregions, so as to scale our impacts in multiple parts of the world with each new company. 

Operating in new bioregions means building companies in new economies and ecosystems, which can be a daunting task. To facilitiate this, we are creating bioregional innovation programs in the form of consortia with strong representation from bioregional stakeholders including universities, philanthropies, industry bodies, governments and farmers. Essentially, by involving as manny local experts with depth and breadth in agriculture as we can, we expect to support Founders of new companies in rapidly scoping new opportunities and giving them a landing pad to hit the ground running.

Beyond cementing deep relationships between new founders and local partners, we also expect to enhance existing, or create new, local innovation relationships, that can expedite the transfer of local expertise and experts into new companies designed to disseminate technology and knowledge locally, and from one bioregion to another - connecting geographically distant partners between different bioregions with similar characteristics into a global network. In this way we can build an impactful company, sell products in many parts of the world, increase local cooperation, and create a path to global collaboration around global issues in food security, biodiversity and climate change.

Local Programs with Global Impacts

For Founders building companies in such programs, they’ll have rapid access to local farmers, investors, research grantmakers and the network’s social capital, and also be able to interface with people growing locally represented crops, farmers or conservationists restoring local ecosystems and innovators with knowledge of experiments that worked well or failed in the past. We’re making sure to involve universities and companies that already have local customer buy-in, and in general aim to give Founders a landing pad into their research facilities or working farms that can be used for experiments, scale up, testing and optimising new products and services in the first few years of startup development. The effort also creates a self-reinforcing cycle, where each new venture created feeds back to the university research groups, unlocking joint grant opportunities and exposing scientists to entrepreneurial thinking and advisory board activities.

Using venture creation to leverage and expand bioregional relationships is the way forward when it comes to stimulating regenerative agriculture.  Not only does it provide natural scope for scalability across different geographies and closely-tied regions, but it also incentivizes a range of actors - from governments to farmers and scientists - to participate and collaborate in regenerative projects. 

Bioregional innovation programs take a long time to build, but are designed to be useful beyond what we are doing at DSV. As we add a new, soon-to-be-announced program in the Tropics to our existing Temperate Agriculture program in Scotland, we hope to pave the way for yet more collaboration and the emergence of a vibrant global entrepreneurial culture supported by our networks. This is particularly important in the context of rural parts of the world where agriculture is generally located, which can easily be left behind when so much innovation is concentrated in big cities, far from farms and agricultural stakeholders, who more than ever, need to work together.