NASHVILLE — The next great business idea just may come from rural Tennessee. USDA Rural Development and the Tennessee Department of Agriculture today announced $220,000 in combined seed funding for a new initiative to help make Tennessee a hub of agri-tech innovation and entrepreneurship.
The Department of Agriculture will facilitate the program, known as AgLaunch. Led by Memphis Bioworks Foundation, the program will also include participation from the Tennessee Department of Economic and Community Development and the University of Tennessee Institute of Agriculture. AgLaunch is an ambitious effort to attract 200 entrepreneurs and establish 100 successful and investable agricultural-sector companies in Tennessee by 2020.
AgLaunch will seek to identify early stage agri-technologies and companies and assist them in building investable, high-growth enterprises through mentorship and programming. Bioworks is currently working with investors and seeking a total of $10 million in public and private funding over the next five years for the project. The goal is to initiate AgLaunch in 2016.
Tennessee Commissioner of Agriculture Julius Johnson, U.S. Rep. Stephen Fincher, USDA Rural Business-Cooperative Service Administrator Lillian Salerno and Tennessee State Director Bobby Goode joined officials for the announcement at the Mid-South Family Farms office in downtown Ripley, Tenn. Mid-South is a third generation diversified farming operation that utilizes the latest technologies to increase productivity and lower inputs. The event included demonstrations from startup companies AgSmarts, Granular and FarmSpace.
“Ag innovation and business creation have the potential to transform our rural economy more than anything else,” Commissioner Johnson said. “We’ve got to be a player if we’re going to fully participate in the growing world demand for food, fuel and fiber. With this funding, we expect to incentivize private investment while making Tennessee a center for agricultural advancement.”
State and federal agricultural officials say that Memphis Bioworks’ exemplary track record in bringing entrepreneurs to the marketplace in the medical technology sector is what attracts their agencies to invest in this project.
“Venture capital investment in agriculture grew by 170% from 2013 to 2014 to $2.4 billion and is projected to have another large jump in 2015,” Bioworks president and executive director Steve Bares said. “That investment is driving innovation-based startup companies to seek out locations like Tennessee. AgLaunch aims to draw those companies to the state, while also identifying and supporting locally-grown ideas from Tennessee’s farmers, entrepreneurs and universities.”
Agricultural innovation utilizes new technologies, tools and approaches to improve efficiency and diversify product offerings. Ultimately, improvements in those areas will increase farmer profitability and reduce the environmental impact of agricultural production, while providing for the food, fuel and fiber needs of a growing world population.
“Supporting the people who live in rural areas, by creating jobs and expanding economic opportunity for rural small businesses, is a top priority for the Obama Administration,” Salerno said. “There is enormous potential for economic growth in rural America.”
The impetus for AgLaunch comes from Gov. Bill Haslam’s Rural Challenge, a 10-year strategy to expand the agricultural and forestry sectors of Tennessee’s economy, currently valued at $66 billion.