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Navigating Agritech Innovation: A Conversation with Mark Durno, Managing Partner at Rockstart AgriFood

Updated: Feb 12

Meet Mark Durno, the insightful investor and Managing Partner at Rockstart AgriFood, as he unravels the intricacies of the agrifood landscape. In this interview, explore agritech trends, the role of thought leaders, and gain strategic insights for navigating risks in the dynamic world of sustainable agriculture. Durno's journey from organic farming to pioneering vertical farming startups adds a unique perspective to the conversation, emphasising the importance of purpose-driven tech founders in transforming our food system for a more sustainable future.


Can you share a bit about your background and journey that led you to become an investor in the agritech and foodtech space? What inspired you to focus on agrifood?

I am a farmer by birth and practice, having grown up farming in Scotland. From a young age, I worked on organic agriculture and the consumer experience of eating healthy, locally produced food. Frustrated by inadequacies and challenges in current production methods, I eventually looked to technology for “fully circular'' local food systems. This led me to join the startup team of one of Europe’s first-mover vertical farming startups out of Switzerland, and ultimately took me along the journey of an early stage agritech startup. I learned firsthand the importance of having access to investors who understood domain knowledge and network (at that time there were not many). 

Our food supply system, when managed effectively, has the potential to avert or absorb all the carbon we need to maintain our climate targets. To me, food production and consumption is the most important thing we can do for nature, our health, and our respective cultural heritage.

The combination of my desire to make a positive impact on our food system for our planet coupled with my belief that purpose-driven tech founders can drive transformational change is what excites me and inspires me to continue to draw capital and attention to the agrifood space.


What current trends or developments in agritech investment do you find most exciting or promising?

The integration of Generative Artificial Intelligence (Gen AI) continues to bring excitement to agritech investments and can be a game-changer if we can tap vertical data libraries for different nature themes (e.g. weather, soil, plant behavior).

Looking at climate mitigation, gene-edited crops through crispr CAS9 application has the potential to be an affordable and impactful solution for areas already affected by climate change.

Regenerative practices to improve soil health and biodiversity are hugely impactful for CO2 sequestration. With carbon markets starting to show signs of maturing, we are optimistic that there will be new business opportunities for farmers.

Automation and robotics in agriculture are an important development, promising more effective use of applications, more uniform harvesting, and easing the impact of labor shortages.


Are there specific areas within agri-food tech that you believe present particularly attractive opportunities for investors in the next few months?

Agritech investments always need a lead time longer than a few months to deliver returns - this is the nature of a seasonal and commodity business. The largest short-term gains are likely found in carbon markets, capital allocation (debt instruments for farmers to transition to regenerative practices and improve land prices) and potentially data sets to train large language models (LLM) for generative AI applications. There is also a need for more horizontal tooling to help newer production methods, for example, precision fermentation, to scale.

In the recent launch of our second AgriFood fund in November 2023, we identified promising opportunities within specific niches of agri-food tech. Our primary focus lies in investments in regenerative solutions, aiming to transform soils and oceans into CO2-capture powerhouses. Additionally, we prioritize responsible practices addressing food waste and loss, reflecting our commitment to circular innovations that create value from wasted food. With a strategic focus on precision farming technologies and advancements in waste recycling, our funds contribute to the evolution of agriculture towards a more sustainable and environmentally friendly future.


What role do you think agrifood thought leaders and innovators play in advancing the agriculture agenda on a national and global scale?

Thought leaders and innovators, exemplified by the entrepreneurs we collaborate with at Rockstart AgriFood, are essential to disrupt the status quo and build a more sustainable and secure future for agriculture on both national and global scales. We have the opportunity to work with founders like Cordulus (the biggest weather station network and most accurate micro-climate forecasting in Northern Europe), Climate Farmers (who work with farmers to transition to regenerative agriculture),  Nordetect, (who offer real-time nutrient analysis to optimize crop performance and improve the equity, quality, and footprint of food), Tunen (using LLMs to give farmers the industry driven search engine they need), Nanomik Biotechnology (Bio-pesticides and natural applications) and plenty of other founders who are reinventing how we think about agriculture. Their pragmatic approach to transformative ideas not only challenges traditional norms but also fills in the gaps, playing a pivotal role in reshaping the agrifood sector for long-term resilience and efficiency.


How do you approach risk management in the agritech space, and what advice would you offer to investors and entrepreneurs looking to navigate and mitigate potential challenges?

This answer really depends on the stage the investor is interested in.

For investors and entrepreneurs, my advice is to prioritize a clear understanding of the market reality. Avoid premature scaling, address regulatory challenges systematically, and seek industry-smart investors for a collaborative approach. 

We expect that specialist investment managers and domain-focused funds will be very important throughout 2024/25 since the “tourist” investors to the segment have cooled off and funding rounds are not so frothy - get yourself a well-respected domain investor on the cap table to help validate and navigate the risk.

Entrepreneurs can benefit from tailored programs offering comprehensive guidance on critical aspects like ESG data collection, demonstrated in our AgriFood fund and program. This partnership-driven strategy empowers ventures to navigate challenges and innovate effectively, fostering progress towards positive outcomes in the AgriFood industry.

It’s also important that investors and customers do not expect startups to get it right first time - it takes time to find market fit, so we need to bake in enough time for trial and error.


Let's ignite innovation together at GAIA! 🌱

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