On August 16 2022 in Adelaide, guests gathered at the magnificent early 20th century former bank building, which now houses restaurant Fishbank, for the Vogue Codes In Conversation Breakfast. As the South Australian instalment of the Vogue Codes initiative, designed to help inspire the next generation of young women about the possibilities of careers in STEM, this year’s panellists—Ros Harvey, founder and CEO of The Yield, and Flavia Tata Nardini, co-founder and CEO of Fleet Space Technologies—sat down with Vogue editor-in-chief Edwina McCann to speak about satellites, sustainable mining and solving farming issues with technology.
Technology is being used to fix immense agricultural problems
Ros Harvey’s company, The Yield, has been working to solve an almost fundamentally unsolvable issue—the uncertainty created by weather—in the hope of alleviating a major issue plaguing farmers. “We've got more people we have to feed at a time when we've got unprecedented pressure on input, cost, land and water and climate change, and all of these things create enormous pressure on our ecosystems,” Harvey explained. “So really the challenge is, if we can solve this uncertainty problem, we can produce more with less, and feed more people in a more sustainable way.”
By creating what Harvey calls “Digital Playbooks,” The Yield are able to draw on data from the history of a farmer's crop production—how they irrigate, feed, protect, and harvest their crops—and their “know-how”, and together, “with our analytics, [create] very simple, easy-to-use recommendations.” By combining these elements, Harvey says they’re able to “predict what’s actually coming. When we can combine robotics and analytics technology, we can close the loop. Because then the farm can be part of the whole supply chain instead of this black box of uncertainty.”
Data can be a huge asset, when it’s used in the right way
“Data is unlike any other technology in the sense that you never use it up,” Harvey explained. “In fact, the more you use it, the more you can find out. You're constantly creating new and even more value from the same thing, and this gives data and technology a very, very special place in part of our solutions and how we're going to address the crisis that the planet is in.”
Satellites are providing a way for us to mine the earth less
As a propulsion engineer—or rocket scientist, to put it in layman’s terms—Flavia Tata Nardini has always been interested in tackling global issues that can be solved through the use of space technologies. “We had a lot of interesting conversations about what we needed to do to make this world a better place, because we must do something,” she said. “I've been really interested to see solar panels, electrification, decarbonisation—beautiful things that we're going to have in the next 20 years.”
However, Tata Nardini recognised that in order to make these things, we’d need to continue harvesting huge quantities of minerals such as lithium, copper, nickel and cobalt. And to find these minerals, “we would need to drill the entire planet.” As she explained, humans often create new problems as a result of solving others. “We’ve dug five million holes in the past 10 years, and [have found] 40 per cent less than what we need.”
Determined to find an environmentally-friendly alternative, she eventually realised that satellites were the answer. “Satellites see everything,” she said. “They see every single side of the world from the top.” By scanning the surface of the earth, her company Fleet’s satellites are able to find the exact deposits of minerals, meaning that drilling is precisely targeted and specific. With this technology, she hopes to ensure the damage that has already been done does not continue in the future.
While Australia is creating incredible technologies, we still need to have a global outlook
Harvey explained that, because of Australia’s small population size, when raising capital it’s essential to look abroad for funding, as “you’re never going to get a return if you only sell to Australia, there’s just not enough customers here.”
However, she did go on to enthuse that because “every Australian startup business is born global,” this ultimately puts these companies in a better position to deal with the unavoidable and relentless challenges thrown at them. “We’ve got to work supply chains,” Harvey said. “And if you’re going to do that, you’ve got to scale, and that means you've got to go beyond Australia, and you've got to raise serious money, because our customers are global businesses. They want global solutions. That’s not a bad thing, because it means you’re outward looking, [even though] we hope to keep the core of our technology here in Australia.”
However, both Harvey and Tata Nardini agreed that Australia is the perfect location to develop a startup or pursue a career in STEM. In particular, in the agriculture and food industries, Harvey believes that, as we’re reliant on the export business, and have recently had to cope with challenges in this realm, it’s forced “Australian firms to be innovative to success.”
Being a female founder is tough, but enormously rewarding—and we need more of them
Both Harvey and Tata Nardini admit that they perhaps didn’t initially realise just how hard starting their own companies would be. And while it’s easy to look at their success now and assume it was a straightforward journey, that’s much to the contrary. “Where we are now, it's [taken] decades of experience,” Harvey said. “It's particularly difficult doing your own business, because there's nowhere to hide. Everyone told me it would take twice as long and cost twice as much as it would, and I was like, ‘Pfft, I'll be able to do that.’ [But] they were right.”
However, the panellists unanimously agreed that the struggles were worth it, given the incredible outcomes. “It is endlessly creative and satisfying, and to solve real problems with technology and people, it's a privilege to be able to do that,” Harvey said.
“There are days that are like, “Why did I do this to myself?” Tata Nardini laughed. ”I mean, it's hard, but it’s the most beautiful thing. I think you need to have fire in your belly. You are born an entrepreneur. When people tell you not to do it, you want to do it more.” And for anyone looking to replicate her success as a female founder, Tata Nardini believes that there are three key facets to being an entrepreneur: patience, resilience, and a plan.
Original article printed 29 August 2022.