MORE than 200 new jobs will be created in Cirencester after millions of pounds were poured into a technology hub.

The Royal Agricultural University (RAU) will soon have space for 55 start-up companies keen to push the boundaries of agriculture-technology in its new business "incubator", Farm491.

Eight fledgling companies have already signed up, including one working on vertical farming, another developing aerial drones to check on crops and a business that builds devices to track stolen horse tack.

The name Farm491 is based on the 491 hectares of prime Cotswold farmland the start-ups can use to test their pioneering designs.

Young entrepreneurs will also be lured to the centre by the promise of expert advice from RAU staff, lightning-fast internet coming over the next few months and three ultra-modern centres where they can plan, test and perfect their designs.

The ground-breaking centre is the first of its kind in the world and is set to create more than 200 jobs over the next five years.

Now the centre is on track to turn the area into an agriculture-technology heartland with the help of a £2.9 million grant from county business champion GFirst LEP. The RAU has matched this figure.

The first centre, Trent Lodge, is currently under renovation at the RAU main campus and will be ready over the next few months.

This will lay the way for a centre at the farmland four miles away at Harnhill, which they hope will be built by December this year before the "flagship" centre is developed in 2017.

Centre director Angela Simkins, a former tech company managing director, is leading the project after she took over from interim director Nick Holyoake in January.

She said she wanted to turn the RAU from “Hogwarts to Star Wars”.

“We were absolutely thrilled to get the funding," she said. "There’s been a lot of work put into it even before I got here in January. It will enable the pioneering Farm 491 start-up facility to offer a co-working incubation environment in which budding agri-tech entrepreneurs and developmental companies can run and grow their businesses.”

It is hoped the centre will find answers to some of the biggest challenges facing the agricultural world today, including how to feed a population set to rise to almost 10 billion people by 2050.

Cirencester mayor Mark Harris said the news was “fantastic” for the town.
“It’s so exciting for Cirencester, we are running forward into the 21st century,” he said.

Start-up companies can get full-time office space, access to the fields and advice from RAU experts for £250 a month at Farm491.

Liz Truss, secretary of state for environment, food and rural affairs, visited the rural innovation centre in February and gave her backing to the venture.

Mike Warner, GFirst LEP board member and chairman of The Warner Group, said: “Approval of the Farm491 project will enable this new pioneering initiative, which will create a vibrant environment for the advancement of agri-tech, to go ahead – benefitting both the UK agriculture and food production industries, as well as Gloucestershire’s rural industry.

“In addition to this, it will assist in the government’s drive to improve food sustainability within the UK.”

Jo Mills, head of corporate affairs at RAU, told the Standard the agriculture sector employs 450,000 people in the UK and contributes £9bn to the nation’s economy.

She said: “The growing global agricultural technologies sector is worth £400bn, offering export opportunities in emerging markets.”
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