Leading the Field
Nick Cotter is the CEO of Cotter Agritech, an innovative tech company helping farmers to reduce chemical use among their animals. Having recently been named Global Student Entrepreneur of the Year, the UCC student and Quercus Scholar discusses the importance of sustainability in farming, and his hopes to drive positive impact in the industry. In conversation with Jane Haynes.
When you think back to being 11 years old, what was it that filled your time? For most of us, it would be hanging out with friends, riding our bikes and watching our favourite afterschool TV shows. It was a slightly different scene for Nick Cotter from Abbeyfeale, Co. Limerick, who was already working on a business that would go on to become an industry leader – and pave the way for exceptional future success.
Nick, 21, is a final-year Business and Law student and Quercus* Innovation and Entrepreneurship Scholar at UCC. Having recently celebrated an incredible achievement, winning the Global Student Entrepreneur of the Year Award, Nick traces the origins of his fascinating career back to those sparks of curiosity nurtured while growing up on the family farm.
At the age of 11, alongside his 13-year-old brother Jack, Nick took his first tentative steps into entrepreneurship by selling firewood locally. The brothers ‘tipped away’ on Cotter Bros. Firewood for three or four years, working on it after school; but it was following a trip to Austria, where they researched how to increase the quality of their product, that they proceeded to ‘kick the business into proper gear’.
“We started off as a very small business, and it’s since grown into an industry-leading firewood supplier selling nationwide and employing eight people,” says Nick.
Such early success created a real ‘hunger’ for entrepreneurship, and it wasn’t long before Nick was launching his next business venture: Cotter Organic Lamb. The business, which sells lamb grown on the home farm, marked yet another successful venture – the product won an Irish Food Award in 2020, and now sells nationwide and in the UK.
Nick is passionate about driving his businesses to have a positive impact, something which is clear through his latest venture, Cotter Agritech – the subject of his award-winning pitch at the Global Student Entrepreneur Awards.
“We’re aiming to dramatically reduce chemical use in agriculture by enabling farmers to move from blanket-treating their animals at regular intervals with anti-parasitic drugs to, instead, only identifying and treating the animals that actually need it,” explains Nick.
“This reduces drug use by about 40 to 50 per cent without having any impact or negative consequences on animal welfare or performance. And, by limiting the use of these drugs, it can allow farming to have less of an impact in terms of biodiversity – these drugs do a lot of harm to a lot of invertebrates and small insects in the soil.”
The innovative technology at the heart of Cotter Agritech was developed by Nick and his brother and is based on a software system that uses an advanced algorithm. This algorithm indicates which animals will benefit from treatment and which animals won’t, based on several environmental and physiological factors. The information is fed through to a hardware system in real-time, with no internet required – completely tailored to a real farming environment.
Nick admits there is ‘huge pressure’ on farmers to review their practices in light of our global climate crisis, and he sees Cotter Agritech as playing an impactful role in introducing a more sustainable approach across farming.
“There’s a great line in the Law of Negligence, where you have to ask yourself: did you do everything that was reasonable in the circumstances? In terms of sustainability in farming, that is exactly what we need to do; we’re not doing it right now, but we will do it, and technology like this is crucial to enable farmers to do it,” he says.
You can tell that Business and Law is a natural fit for Nick, who admits: “I absolutely love it to bits; I couldn’t have picked a better course. If I went back and did the CAO again – I’d do it all the exact same way. It’s just incredibly interesting.”
And with all the success he has enjoyed, Nick’s feet remain firmly on the ground. A keen golfer and member of UCC Golf Club, he’s adamant on getting ‘maximum enjoyment and value’ out of his final year in college.
“At the end of the day, I’m 21 years of age and I recognise that. I know, if you read my bio, it sounds like this kid wants to be 35 already!” he jokes.
“I think, when you’re a student and an entrepreneur, you have to prioritise that stuff as well. I don’t think the business is the number one priority all the time … I take a lot from trying to also be a regular college student, because I’m in college and that’s what that experience is for; and if all I did throughout college across the four years was work on the business, sure, that’s great, but then the whole experience is lost on me – what’s the point?”
"It’s a huge vote of confidence in agriculture and the need to help the sector. It’s great to see that there’s a recognition and want to help farmers to address these problems” - Nick Cotter
It’s clear from speaking to Nick that his primary motivation is to make a positive difference in the world. And while he acknowledges that being named the Global Student Entrepreneur of the Year was ‘a huge boost’ for himself and his team, he is more focused on how it will impact his industry and those budding entrepreneurs who will follow in his wake.
“For Irish student entrepreneurs, I would hope that it would be an inspiration to them,” he says. “But also, from a farming perspective, it’s a huge vote of confidence in agriculture and the need to help the sector. It’s great to see that there’s a recognition and want to help farmers to address these problems.”
Looking ahead, Nick is first and foremost focused on getting his degree. Beyond that, he hopes to continue driving Cotter Agritech forward and complete his Green Cert so that, one day, he can go into farming himself.
"My ambition is simply to have a positive impact in whatever way I can,” he says, “and to try to achieve the potential that’s there – and, at the same time, enjoy being 21 years of age as well.”
*The Quercus Talented Students’ Programme is supported by Bank of Ireland.
Visit the Cotter Agritech website for further information.
Photography: Diane Cusack