ICT International is an innovative Armidale company making a significant impact on domestic and global markets. Established in 1982, the agribusiness has undertaken dedicated research and development of innovative digital sensors and data loggers to measure soil and plant water use.
ICT International’s instruments are used by environmental scientists and farmers to measure and solve the ever-increasing problems of limited water resources.
The company has developed two unique world-class scientific instruments, manufactured in Armidale, which are now being regularly exported to commercial enterprises, science agencies and leading universities in over 50 countries. ICT International was awarded three NSW State Awards for innovation and export excellence in 2013.
ICT International is collaborating with the University of New England at its test site for new technologies, known as the SMART farm. It provides access to the latest data streaming technology from a range of field, animal and machinery sensors.
For Peter Cull, water was “always the key”. Even as a 10-year-old on his father’s dry-land wheatcropping farm, he realised the importance of water management in achieving higher yields.
“My father got the highest yields in the district, every year,” he recalls. “To me as a kid, that meant he was managing his water in this rain -grown cropping environment better than all his neighbours. But I realised if we were going to make it a proper practice, we’d have to measure these things.” By the early 1980s, Cull had acquired a PhD in irrigation monitoring and a wealth of plant water-use knowledge.
Working with cotton growers and keen to apply scientific theory to real-world challenges, he launched ICT International “from a caravan in Narrabri” in 1982. “We ran cotton industry-sponsored trials, and got to understand the soil, the behaviour of water in it, how to irrigate it-then things really started to change.”
During the ’80s, Cull consulted widely across Australia’s cotton industry, introducing quantitative soil-moisture testing with neutron probes, an innovation that transformed the sector.
Meanwhile, he and wife Susan’s company grew internally within Australia, supplying imported scientific instrumentation for monitoring soil, plant and atmospheric water use to research bodies, universities, government departments and agribusinesses-and waiting until the time was right to start developing their own.
“By 2006, the technology had advanced sufficiently and we had enough resources to enable us to follow our passion, engage engineers and create what we knew was really needed,” Cull says.
“We understood the critical parameters that have to be managed in a plant: sap flow and plant water potential (stress). But no-one had attempted to make live instruments you could deploy in the field to measure these things in real time.”
Innovation in instrumentation
So in 2006, ICT International launched an innovation program developing new plant and soil-moisture sensors and datalogging platforms.
The company’s in-house scientists and engineers worked with environmental, soil and plant experts worldwide to develop novel precision-monitoring technologies and instrumentation that ICT International tested in the field, then manufactured at company HQ in Armidale, NSW.
“Our instrumentation was developed in collaboration with six key international universities… to the point where it could be used in the field on a regular, user friendly basis to get meaningful sets of data,” Cull explains. Nearly a decade later, the company launched its first signature products: the SFM1 Sap Flow Meter and PSY Stem Psychrometer.
ICT lnternational’s psychrometer measures plants’ ability to access water and changes in plant water status (water stress); its sap flow meter ascertains how much water a plant uses and is the only instrument on Earth able to measure water movement within a plant in both upward and downward directions. “This was the first time this critical set of parameters had been measured in real time, in the field,” Cull says.
“This had been the Holy Grail of many plant scientists for 40 years-and we achieved it.”
Deploying SFM1 and PSY in the field led to major advances in understanding how plants adapt to different environments and to climate change; and cemented ICT lnternational’s position as a world-leading creator of cutting edge instrumentation.
Environmental and agricultural monitoring
ICT lnternational’s precision instruments are now used for environmental and forestry research and management; in agricultural, horticultural and glasshouse businesses; for mine site rehabilitation; and by governments, scientific agencies and universities across four continents.
Its instruments have been installed to measure plant water use, weather impacts and environmental change in the Amazon rainforest; among California’s 120m-high redwoods and trees along northern Canada’s ice line; and at mine sites in Australia and Peru.
In agriculture, ICT lnternational’s high-tech sensors and data-logging systems are used to inform everything from irrigation scheduling to drought resistant plant breeding.
“Innovative farmers all over the world are picking up on our instruments-in almonds, macadamias, sandalwood, citrus; big water-consuming crops,” Cull notes.
“They’re measuring soil moisture, but know they can do better, so they come to us. And they get dramatic water savings.”
Unsurprisingly, ICT lnternational’s gamechanging products have netted several awards for export success and innovation, and a spot in Westpac’s 200 Businesses of Tomorrow 2017, judged “largely on their growth potential”, Cull contends.
“Catering to a niche market, you’ll never have the growth of a company like, say, Microsoft, but we were following a passion. We’re the world leader in this-we set standards globally. Our instruments are consistently published in top journals by leading scientists; and people are using them for good. We’re pretty happy with that.”
The following article appeared in New England Focus, March 2018.
Tell us a little about yourself.
I was teaching English and History at Wee Waa High School when I met my husband, Peter. Peter was on a mission to improve water use efficiency throughout Australia, we joined forces, I gave up teaching and took on the marketing and operational management of the newly created business. We have one son who lives with his wife in Sydney. We spent 20 years in Narrabri, moving to Armidale in 2000.
What does ICT do?
ICT researches, designs, manufactures and deploys unique world class scientific instrumentation for monitoring water use in plants. We manufacture in Armidale, employ 15 staff locally and export to over 50 countries annually.
How did ICT come into being?
ICT was formed in 1982 growing out of Peter’s PhD study which focused on finding the most appropriate instrument to quantify the application of water to irrigative crops. Based in Narrabri for twenty years, we introduced and marketed quantitative soil moisture monitoring using neutron probes to irrigation farmers, CSIRO scientists, departments of agriculture, environmental government entities and universities. We also supplied our customers with imported scientific instrumentation for monitoring soil, plant and environmental parameters. We realised in 2006 the opportunity was in R & D and manufacturing. Overseas product wasn’t solving the issues that agriculture and forestry for example were experiencing because of increasing temperatures and scarcity of water resource. Soil science instrumentation wasn’t giving our customers the research data that was needed to advance improved crop production outcomes. We determined that we needed to focus on the plant or tree itself and effectively started a 10-year R & D program. The result was the creation of completely unique plant science instrumentation of which the Sap Flow Meter and Psychrometer are our flagship products.
These unique products are now contributing to new global research outcomes including: researching the tallest trees in the world and identifying how they are being affected by climate change; studying the effects of trees dying in the Tundra due to the Tundra permafrost melting; or achieving huge water savings in horticultural crops such as almonds, macadamias, sandalwood, citrus and grapes. ICT International’s instruments are deployed across every possible landscape including environmental and forestry research and management; in agricultural, horticultural and glasshouse production; mine-site rehabilitation and urban forest research.
How do yours and Peter’s roles differ?
Peter manages and leads the scientific R&D product development side of the business, while I lead the business operations with a focus on marketing. We are both involved in managing production.
Why has ICT been so successful?
We backed ourselves, fundamentally understood plant water relations after decades of consulting to farmers to improve their water use efficiencies and hence improve yield outcomes and collaborated with the leading plant scientists around the world. This formula enabled us to develop and commercialise new sensing technology that was focused on solving the real issues our customers face around the world. Our instrumentation is used to research what will work moving forward: whether it is what tree species will thrive in a world of increasing temperature and increasingly scarce water; or how crops will respond as the impact of climate change is felt. We have created new Australian IP, unique Australian product which is exported to 50 countries annually.
What were your biggest challenges starting out?
Learning to trust my own instincts whether it was about people or business strategies. Over time I realised one of my strengths is to never say I can’t, but to say why not and give it a go.
What is your favourite part of running your own business?
There are probably two things. Firstly, I really enjoy thinking creatively and like to join the dots. I believe that framework of thinking carries through to my current role as President of the Armidale Business Chamber. Secondly, I love empowering our staff to take ownership of their roles and contribution to the company.
As a woman in business in a once traditionally male field what qualities have you found the most useful?
Ultimately, it’s about being yourself. You can’t enjoy the confidence of your staff unless you have confidence in yourself. For me intrinsic to that is having a sense of humour. It is part of my DNA both personally and professionally.
What inspires you?
I’m inspired by seeing the beauty in the everyday things around us, in the smile of a child, a beautiful piece of writing, a beautifully designed ad campaign.
What would you advise a business just starting out?
When you run your own business you will experience, pleasure, passion and pain in sometimes equal measure. Don’t go into business unless it’s your absolute heart’s desire and passion. You need commitment to stand strong in the face of that. You cannot be half hearted. You need to strive for excellence every day.
Where to from here?
We continue to research and design new products based on forecasting the research needs of our customers for the future. Recent new projects include working with research institutes and councils to develop successful strategies to grow healthy urban trees for the Smart Cities of the future.
Thank you Susan.