Interview and Podcast

Skills for life – what is needed in the agritech sector

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Edition 6

Polly Purvis OBE

Director of ScotFIN, IGS
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When considering the scope for digital innovation within the agricultural sector, there is perhaps nobody better placed to share their hopes and ambitions for the future than Polly Purvis OBE. Polly brings with her a wealth of experience of technology integration and innovation having worked with ScotlandIS for 20 years – six of which she spent as CEO – and as a co-founder of CodeClan, Scotland’s first digital skills academy. Today, she joins us both as an expert in all things digital, but also as a colleague, having stepped into the role of Director of ScotFIN with IGS in 2019.

Your career has had several different iterations - studying agriculture and marketing before moving into financial services, business consultancy and then the IT sector. Can you tell us a bit more about how you have made the move across disciplines and sectors?

As a child, I spent my holidays on a farm and was desperate to study agriculture at university. My parents persuaded me there really wasn’t many career opportunities for women in agriculture and so I went off to university to do accountancy. However, when I got there, I discovered a course in agriculture and marketing and changed over to study that. I did thoroughly enjoy it, but I think what it taught me was that I didn’t have the right aptitude for marketing, which is ironic as that is what I actually have spent much of my career doing!

Initially I set off to work in the City, working in retail banking in Williams & Glyns in the years leading up market deregulation. I then came back to Scotland and joined the Scottish Development Agency (which later became Scottish Enterprise). The organisation was instrumental in rebuilding the Scottish economy following the closure of more traditional industries such as shipbuilding, steel and coal. It was an interesting time to be involved in economic development. When my younger child was born, I was offered a role in project management for a trade body in the software industry: ScotlandIS. I loved it there: the tech sector is so full of people doing really interesting things and trying to solve a wide range of problems. Whilst I am not very technically minded, I am definitely a closet geek.

In the last little while I have been working with IGS, which really is a coming together of my interest in agriculture and my experience in and love of technology. This is a business at the forefront of the development of indoor growing, utilising so many disciplines. It’s a fascinating example of bringing together all those different areas of traditional, new and emerging technology-based skills that will filter across so many sectors.  

You were CEO of ScotlandIS for six years. Can you tell us a bit more about that organisation and the vision it has for developing growth in the digital technology sector across Scotland and beyond?

The Scottish tech community is predominantly made up of small to medium sized businesses, mainly home grown, which need a champion for the industry. They are too small to act on their own and they need a collective approach, and that’s where a trade body such as ScotlandIS can help drive the sector forward. Skills is very much one of the key areas of focus working with schools, universities and colleges. The trade body also serves to showcase, network and promote what others are doing, helping companies within the local community to connect up, and learn from each other, supporting much greater collaboration. That is really very beneficial to small and medium sized businesses.

We also ran awards and the other functions, such as market research, you would expect with a trade body, so there was lots of variety, which I really like – in case you couldn’t tell!  

One of the projects you were involved in very closely was the establishment of Scotland’s first digital technology skills academy – CodeClan. What was the driving force behind this?

If you go back to the late 1990s, Scotland had a growing tech community, but it was still relatively small. Scotland benefits from fantastic universities with a great reputation for computer science and software engineering, but the number of people you can turn out at a university is relatively limited. The industry was growing but it was seriously constrained by the number of skilled people. We clearly had a skills gap, and we wanted to find a way to attract people into the sector who didn’t necessarily have the time or the funding to go through a four-year degree course. In establishing CodeClan, we looked to the ‘coding bootcamps’ in the US and Europe for inspiration, borrowed some of those ideas and turned them into a course in Scotland to skill and equip people in software development. Whilst I don’t think this qualification is the direct equivalent to a university degree, CodeClan graduates tend to have other industry expertise which employers really value, and find they get a great range of skills and experience.  

Our original focus for the organisation was software development but we always wanted to ensure we were dynamic, and so CodeClan has since introduced additional courses, for example in data science. That’s very relevant to sectors such as vertical farming as it brings together AI, analytics and machine learning. We have also introduced short courses on topics like user experience or UX, which is a growing in-demand skill in the tech sector.  

The idea with the CodeClan approach is that it is highly responsive to needs in the sector. I do see opportunities to do something relatively similar in the agritech community where we have a real depth of experience in our agricultural colleges and universities around horticultural and agricultural skills. I think there’s a real opportunity to develop technical and digital skills to sit alongside those existing more traditional skillsets.

"There’s a real opportunity in the agritech community to develop technical and digital skills to sit alongside those existing more traditional skillsets."

You joined IGS in 2019 and it seems almost like the completion of the circle of your skills and experience in agriculture and technology (or agritech) in synergy together. Can you tell us what excites you about the opportunities for this emerging agritech sector?

Scotland, and the UK more broadly, has real strengths in agriculture and has pioneered innovations over the centuries. We are now facing major challenges with growing global populations and climate change, so the imperative to grow more food locally is something that needs to be addressed urgently.

With precision agriculture, and the use of data, we have the opportunity to inform the way we grow both crops and livestock. By employing this technology, we can waste less of the inputs and can accurately measure the outputs. We see that at IGS: we have been able to get our crop science so precise that crop quality can be replicated time and time again. If we can give farming communities and individual growers more control over what they are doing and make them less susceptible to the vagaries of the market, we will change agriculture significantly.

"With precision agriculture, and the use of data, we have the opportunity to inform the way we grow both crops and livestock. By employing this technology, we can waste less of the inputs and can accurately measure the outputs."

Is there a need for ‘thinking differently’ – both from the digital/software sector and the agriculture sector to attract more and the right type of talent?

The industry as a whole has come so far in so many ways. There is still a great demand for more traditional horticulture and agricultural skills, but that is starting to be combined with engineering, design and data skills to focus on new approaches to farming. I do think we need to promote and publicise the opportunities that are coming as we use technology to improve and evolve the way we produce food. There are gaps that need to be filled, but it is a developing area and a really interesting one.  

The imperative is there now, and we need to bring a wide range of ideas, thinking and approaches to the table. Diversity in all we do is going to be so important, and particularly in the skills base.  

Is there enough opportunity for development – across academic, practical and industry levels – to drive greater interaction and collaboration for talent identification across the agritech space?

As you look at the job market, this is going to evolve substantially over the next two decades. It is very important that we find ways to help people take their skillsets over to other industries. We need to think about the range of transferable skills and help individuals to upskill and reskill.  

If you look at what is happening in food, there is a lot of change. People are looking at what we eat more, and there’s an increasing move towards plant-based diets. This creates new opportunities, and challenges how we produce food. As a result, we need to bring together people with innovative thinking and new skills. We have that blend of skills at IGS and that is one of the things I find most exciting about the company and I think this is going to become a much more normalised approach in food production as we move forward.

"People are looking at what we eat more, and there’s an increasing move towards plant-based diets. This creates new opportunities, and challenges how we produce food. As a result, we need to bring together people with innovative thinking and new skills."

Guest Bio

Polly Purvis OBE

Director of ScotFIN, IGS

Polly Purvis OBE, Director of the Scottish Food Incubator Network at IGS, the Scottish agri-tech business building leading edge vertical farming solutions. 

Prior to joining IGS, Polly was CEO of ScotlandIS, the trade body for the digital industries in Scotland, She is the Founder and immediate past Chair of CodeClan, the digital skills academy, a board member of Edinburgh Science, and a member of the Advisory Board of Converge Challenge. During her career she has worked in the financial services economic development, and digital technologies industries.

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