The Golden Autumn agricultural trade fair is to a large extent a celebration of Russian traditions. Individual regions of Russia present their local produce on their own stand, often accompanied by people dressed in folk costumes who sing, dance or play traditional instruments to attract attention to their wares: pine nuts from Tomsk, pryaniki (gingerbread) from Tula, and Crimean oysters and mussels. Amid the mounds of grains and seeds, mushrooms, honey, outsized traditional karavai wedding bread, salmon, caviar, bear and elk meat, and even live chicks, the futuristic stand representing the Skolkovo Foundation was an outpost of innovation.
Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev (right) meets Skolkovo residents at Golden Autumn on Wednesday. Photo: Sk.ru
There was little traditional about the exhibits of the 15 Skolkovo resident startups present, from a robotic system for milking cows – complete with a model of a cow’s udder – to protein supplements made from sunflowers.
Amid the food items that have been made to the same recipes for centuries, the robotic milking station certainly stood out, and attracted the attention of many visitors to the enormous exhibition at VDNKh, including Deputy Prime Minister Arkady Dvorkovich.
Alexey Khakhunov, CEO of R-Sept, which created the robotic milking station, says no supervision is required: the system uses computer vision, neural networks and artificial intelligence to recognise the cow’s udder, milk the cow efficiently, and stop at the right time.
Alexey Khakhunov, CEO of R-Sept, with his robotic milking station. Photo: Sk.ru.
“The machine is built in such a way that even if a mistake occurs in the algorithm, the mechanical arm cannot injure the cow,” says Khakhunov.
And while the idea of putting a delicate body part in the metallic grip of an unsupervised robot might make some people nervous, Khakhunov is as invested as any other farmer that the technology should work well: he and his family have a farm in the Sergiyev Posad district of the Moscow region, where they keep 1,500 cows, including 800 milk cows.
“Everyone in my family apart from me is an agriculturalist,” Khakhunov told Sk.ru.
“I’m a techie, I studied robotics at Bauman [Moscow State Technical University], and the symbiosis of those two things is key to the project.”
Skolkovo vice president for innovations Kirill Kaem (left) and Khakhunov present the robot milker to Deputy Prime Minister Arkady Dvorkovich (right). Photo: Sk.ru.
R-Sept’s system can milk cows in two stalls simultaneously, and decrease the cost of producing a litre of milk by 30 to 40 percent, according to Khakhunov. The robot can process 110 cows a day, working on the basis that each cow goes to the robot to be milked on average 2.7 times a day.
R-Sept also makes an automatic feed pusher and farm management software that allows farmers to monitor cattle health and behaviour, milk output and other data, including the milk’s chemical composition, enabling the system to alert the farmer at the first sign of disease.
“Robotisation makes it possible to solve a range of key problems that agriculture is currently facing: a huge deficit of competent farm managers, because this is a very specific area of work, and also of workers to milk and feed the cows,” says Khakhunov.
The milk yield at all robotised farms is significantly greater than at non-robotised ones, because cows produce more milk when they are calm, and despite the whirring and humming of milking machines, the cow does not become stressed, because each procedure is absolutely identical, unlike human milkers, says Khakhunov.
Amid many highly traditional displays at the trade fair, the futuristic Skolkovo stand stood out. Photo: Sk.ru.
In Europe, where most farms are small family enterprises of about 100-150 cows, about 20-30 percent of processes are robotised, he said. That level is far lower in Russia, the U.S. and China, where farms tend to be far bigger, containing up to tens of thousands of animals.
“The technology on the European market isn’t suited to the Russian, American and Chinese models, while the solutions that we are developing can be integrated into the systems of large farms,” says Khakhunov.
Another incentive for Russian farms to go automatic is that nearly all regions have subsidies in place for the purchase of robots, enabling them to recover 20-70 percent of the cost, he said. R-Sept’s system will cost about 8 million rubles ($140,000) when it reaches the market.
The company raised some venture financing earlier this year, and Khakhunov plans to put his money where his mouth is and start the automation of his own farm in March next year. By 2021, the company hopes to enter the international market.
AgroCompost has developed technology to produce compost in 21 days rather than several months. Photo: Sk.ru.
Other innovative startups on show at Golden Autumn, which runs from October 4-7, included AgroCompost.ru, which became a resident of the Skolkovo Foundation in June and operates out of an office in the Technopark. AgroCompost has devised a technology for the accelerated composting of organic waste.
“In contrast to classical composting technology that takes several months, our system makes it possible to get organic fertilizer from organic waste such as chicken droppings and pig manure in just 21 days,” says Nadezhda Beshkova, PR manager at AgroCompost.
“This is achieved by two types of processing the waste: biological processing using a specially created strain of thermophilic bacteria, and mechanical processing using churning equipment,” she explained.
The company provides a package of services that includes designing the composting area and providing the bacteria and churning equipment. The system is already in use, primarily at poultry farms, said Beshkova.
Alexey Kramarenko of Agratec Bio demonstrates his bioactive soil products for use in organic farming. Photo: Sk.ru.
Another organic solution on display was a range of bioactive soil products developed by Agratec Bio to offer an alternative to chemical fertilizers.
“We make concentrated compositions of bioactive soil that has three properties: an immunomodulatory function, to allow plants to withstand short periods of cold and drought and make them resistant to parasites, a growth stimulant, and a fungicide that helps them to fight mould,” explained Alexey Kramarenko, general director of Agratec Bio.
The products – including one designed especially for hydroponic systems – are made using organic acids, silicon and other materials, and are suitable for use in organic farming, he said.
“After treatment with our product, no toxic elements – which have a big impact on our health – remain in the fruit of the plant,” said Kramarenko.
A younger visitor to Golden Autumn examines one of the systems on show at the Skolkovo stand. Photo: Sk.ru.
The product is still at the research and testing stage, but has already seen good results in field tests with mushrooms, grain cultures and other vegetation, and has seen interest from several Western European institutes and companies, he said.
In addition to organic solutions, the Skolkovo stand also had plenty to offer in the way of digital technologies, Roman Kulikov, director of agro-industrial acceleration projects within the Skolkovo Foundation’s biomed cluster, pointed out.
“The accent is on digital projects: everyone needs them, and everyone understands that. They also offer the most effective and fast return on investment,” he told Sk.ru.
Skolkovo resident Sunprotein makes its Spetsnaz protein supplement from sunflowers. Photo: Sk.ru.
The digital projects on show included aggregators and consolidators of data, including from satellites.
“Such technologies are in demand by companies like [major Russian fertilizer producers] Uralchem and Uralkali to enable the more precise spreading of fertilizer on the ground. The fertilizer market has slumped, both in Russia and around the world, and everyone suddenly needs innovative approaches. And for this kind of innovation, major companies turn to Skolkovo,” said Kulikov.
About 20 Skolkovo companies took part in the Golden Autumn exhibition, some of which were taking part in pitching sessions rather than exhibiting at the stand. Five startups took part in an Investors’ Club panel session moderated by Skolkovo vice president for innovations, Kirill Kaem. One of the featured investors was Pekka Viljakainen, a Finnish advisor to Skolkovo Foundation president Victor Vekselberg.
Performers in traditional dress at the stand of Russia's southern republic of Kabardino-Balkaria. Photo: Sk.ru.
“When five years ago I openly proposed focusing on agrotech as an investment area, very senior people told me agrotech was not a good business,” said Viljakainen.
That changed overnight in 2014 when Russia banned most food imports from many Western countries in retaliation against sanctions imposed by those countries against Russia over the Ukraine conflict, marking the beginning of a boost for domestic agriculture.
“I’m extremely happy to see now, when I look around me, that this is now such a big thing. If sanctions never did any good, then this time, in this particular business, it’s a great thing,” said Viljakainen.