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Irish aviation tycoon to help grow Gulf agtech startup

Slattery Supplied
Jet leasing entrepreneur Dómhnal Slattery welcomes Gulf business opportunities including agtech startup Pure Harvest Smart Farms
  • Avolon co-founder Dómhnal Slattery joins Pure Harvest Smart Farms
  • Aims to scale Abu Dhabi-based startup to global relevance
  • Entrepreneur open to other investment opportunities in the Middle East

Irish entrepreneur Dómhnal Slattery, best known for scaling companies in the aviation sector, has been appointed a special adviser to one of the Gulf’s biggest startups, and is open to more potential investments in the region.

Pure Harvest Smart Farms, the agtech startup based in Abu Dhabi, in July raised $180 million in funding from global investors, taking its total treasure chest of funding to $387 million since it was founded in 2016.

Co-founder and CEO Sky Kurtz, a Stanford University business graduate and former private equity investor, plans to double the size of the company by the end of 2023.

Pure Harvest is aiming to become the Middle East’s next $1 billion unicorn startup within two years and part of its strategy to achieve this is bringing Slattery onboard.

“Like all things in life, the best things happen by chance, not by design,” Slattery told AGBI. He already had a relationship with the company after becoming an early investor but decided to become more closely involved in the workings of the company this year.

“My father was a market greengrocer so was in the business of growing vegetables and selling them in his shop. So I had a natural affinity to it. That was number one. 

“Number two, I’ve always been attracted to people who find themselves in an environment that is almost against the odds.

“When Sky started explaining to me that they’re going to grow the best tomatoes and the best strawberries in the middle of the desert, in the harshest conditions in the world, I said ‘I admire your ambition and your tenacity’”. 

Slattery is best known as the co-founder of Dublin’s Avolon, one of the world’s largest jet leasing companies. Founded in 2010, Avolon was originally backed by Singapore’s sovereign wealth fund.

It was listed on the New York Stock Exchange in 2014, before being bought by Chinese-owned Bohai Leasing for $7.6 billion in 2016.

Slattery stepped down as Avolon CEO this summer, but it was through this role with the jet leaser that he came into contact with many of the biggest business players in the Gulf.

“I’ve been doing business in the Middle East for 30 years, predominantly in aerospace and aviation.

“I’ve been in and out of the region a long time. I have borrowed a lot of capital from the banks there to simulate the growth of these companies. So I’m familiar with the dynamic.”

Pure HarvestSupplied
Sky Kurtz, co-founder of Pure Harvest Smart Farms

Slattery is also non-executive chairman of New York-listed Vertical Aerospace, and CEO of investment vehicle Clahane Capital. Vertical Aerospace is a startup developing electric air taxis and has garnered orders from the around the world.

He said it is his ability to scale companies to a global level that brought him to the attention of Pure Harvest.

“My core skill as a business leader has been a proven ability to help business scale,” he said. “And scale, in my mind, is going from a startup to a minor player to operating on a global scale, with global ambition, global funding, a global balance sheet, and interacting with the rating agencies.”

Research firm Magnitt reported the number of Middle East and North African startup investment deals dropped 4.7 percent to 466 in the first nine months of 2022, with the total value down 20 percent to $2.3 billion.

This was reflective of a global trend, with KPMG reporting that venture capital (VC) funding fell to a six-quarter low in the second quarter of 2022.

Slattery said the Ukraine war and rising global interest rates have made many VC funds risk averse and he described raising funds at the moment as “a hard slog”.

Pure Harvest Smart Farms
Pure Harvest Smart Farms, the Gulf agtech startup on the way to becoming a $1 billion unicorn

“What happens is the best projects, at the most appropriate valuation, get funded, so the chaff gets pushed to the side,” he said.

“And I think that we’re moving into that phase now for the next two quarters. These institutional VC investors have lots of cash and, ultimately, they need to deploy that cash, so they cannot sit on their hands forever.” 

But Slattery believes one of the key challenges in the Gulf was no clear strategy for how VCs can exit regional startups and reap their investment.

“I think Pure Harvest could actually be a case study for lots of aspiring entrepreneurs,” he said.

“If Pure Harvest wished to exit in a public market context, I think it could pick any exchange in the world to go with. It could pick Nasdaq, it could pick London, Amsterdam, Hong Kong, Singapore, or whatever. 

“Don’t construe this as Pure Harvest trying to go public, because that’s just not even on the agenda at the moment, but I think they could, and I think what they do would resonate globally with investors. 

“And it’s US equity investors that move the needle in exits. It needs to resonate with the US, and they’re the hard facts in financial markets.”

With decades of experience in the Gulf, and his new role with Pure Harvest, Slattery will likely be spending more time in this part of the world.

“From my perspective, I’m open for other investment opportunities in the Middle East, but we want to make this one a success and make it scale to global relevance.”

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