Twelve Groundbreaking AgTech Startups Selected to Pitch at AgLaunch Startup Station

Companies will pitch to a panel of farmers and investors, including Innova Memphis, a $31 million fund seeking to invest in agriculture’s next big innovation

MEMPHIS, Tenn. (February 20, 2018) —

AgLaunch is bringing its Startup Station pitch event back to the Mid-South Farm and Gin Show for a second time on Friday, March 2, 2018. This event will host some of AgLaunch’s most innovative agtech entrepreneurs from across the country to showcase how their ideas will shape the future of food and agriculture.

Agtech entrepreneurs are addressing on-farm issues with real-world solutions like irrigation management, farm-level efficiencies, and autonomous equipment. The Startup Station will highlight more than a dozen companies that will receive feedback from an expert panel that includes farmers, investors, and industry experts. This event serves as the culmination of Phase II of the AgLaunch365 programming, a farm-centric model that supports agtech companies by connecting to them farmers early in their development process.

Current AgLaunch365 Cohort:

  • EarthSense is developing ultra-compact autonomous robots that use machine-learning to monitor and manage problems in agriculture, specifically to identify weeds and chemical-free methods of reliably eradicating superweeds.
  • Rabbit Tractors is building swarm-enabled, autonomous tractors that are approximately one-third the size and one-fourth the weight of normal tractors and spray rigs and capable of pulling implements as well as late-season spraying.
  • Rantizo is developing an electrostatic spraying system for targeted drone-based spraying.

AgLaunch Alumni Teams:

  • Kilimo provides a decision-support tool for irrigation management in agriculture by using satellite, climate, and on-site data.
  • Microbiometer is a quick test used to estimate the microbial biomass in soil in 10 minutes for 10 percent of the cost of a lab test.
  • Persistence Data Mining is developing a non-intrusive remote hyper-spectral soil analysis to service large tracks of open farmland.
  • Skycision rapidly identifies field stress through the analysis of aerial imagery.

Additional participating teams being evaluated for investment or participating in AgLaunch365 Phase III Farmer Network Field Trials and growth-track programming:

  • AgHelp is an app and wrap-around services helping ag workers find jobs and resources.
  • AgriSync is a communication platform connecting farmers with trusted experts.
  • Global AgSmarte has developed SmarteRoot, an irrigation add-on that increases absorption of water and nutrients for crops to increase yields.
  • Harvest Yield is an electronic record-keeping system to ensure accurate invoicing for custom harvesters.
  • Stable’N is a nitrification inhibitor process that utilizes electricity delivered into the soil by a retrofit to existing fertilizer application equipment.
  • SwineTech has developed a farrowing safety device to protect the health of piglets.

During two investment pitch sessions, entrepreneurs will be given 8 minutes to pitch their ideas and 7 minutes to answer questions from a panel of farmers, investors, and agribusiness professionals who will provide feedback to refine these products and prepare the companies for follow-on investment and 2018 farm-scale trials. Participating panelists represent the following organizations:

  • Growing Acres Farm
  • Indigo Ag
  • Innova Ag Innovation Fund IV
  • Mid-South Family Farms
  • National Black Growers Council
  • Ritter Agribusiness
  • TechStars

Teams that perform well will have the opportunity for follow-on investment from Innova Memphis and participation in 2018 farm-scale field trials with the AgLaunch Farmer Network.

The AgLaunch Startup Station will be open at the Chickasaw Room on the Mezzanine Level at Booth #4027 for anyone wishing to engage with the startup companies or to learn more about AgLaunch from 9 a.m. until 5 p.m. The investment pitch sessions will be held from 10:30 am-12:00 pm and from 1:30 pm until 3:00 pm.

The Mid-South Farm and Gin Show hosts more than 400 exhibitors and 20,000 farmers every year. You can learn more about the Farm and Gin Show at their website https://www.farmandginshow.com.

AgLaunch Startup Station
Friday, March 2, 2018
9 a.m.- 5 p.m.
Cook Convention Center, Chickasaw Room, Booth #4027
255 N Main St, Memphis, TN
Investment Pitch Session #1: 10:30 a.m.-12:00 p.m.
Investment Pitch Session #2: 1:30 p.m.- 3:00 p.m.
Free Registration Here

About AgLaunch™ 

AgLaunch attracts, creates, and grows agtech startups, facilitates the development of new agriculture and food value-chains, and builds collaborative farmer networks in the Mid-South, with a commitment to intentional inclusion. AgLaunch is a joint initiative of Memphis Bioworks Foundation (www.memphisbioworks.org) and the Tennessee Department of Agriculture (www.tn.gov/agriculture). AgLaunch365 is a farm-centric innovation platform for agriculture designed to calibrate support with the specific needs of agtech startups and the agricultural industry. AgLaunch365 is made possible through partnerships with Start Co., Tennessee Farm Bureau, Epicenter, Farm Journal Media, Archer Malmo, and Baker Donelson. 

Learn more: www.aglaunch.com

AgLaunch Entrepreneurs Showcased at Farm Journal AgTech Expo

Seven AgTech Teams exhibit and demonstrate their technologies at inaugural expo

INDIANAPOLIS, Ind. (December 12, 2017) — As part of the unique partnership with Farm Journal Media, AgLaunch and seven of the agtech teams that it supports are participating in the inaugural Farm Journal AgTech Expo. Farm Journal AgTech Expo provides insights and information from key experts so farmers can harness the power of AgTech.

“AgTech startups provide valuable innovations for our industry as farmers are looking for tools to make them more efficient, more environmentally sustainable and more profitable,” said Margy Eckelkamp, Editor of AgPro and Director of Content Development at Machinery Pete.

The expo is the culminating event for the agtech teams completing Phase I of AgLaunch365 and exploring participation in Phase II, where teams will continue customer discovery and build out field trials for the spring. Four of the teams- DryMAX, Earth Sense, Rabbit Tractors, and Rantizo- will be showcasing their companies on Wednesday, December 13, 2017 at 7:45 am in the Expo Hall to a panel of farmers and the general public.

“The key component of AgLaunch365 is connecting early-stage agtech companies with farmers to help inform product development and become engaged in the scale up of the company,” said Pete Nelson, President & Executive Director of AgLaunch. “Our partnership with Farm Journal Media is helping our teams get connected with leading farmers, while providing content on the innovation pipeline to its readers and listeners.”

AgLaunch365 teams participating are:

  • DryMAX, based in Minnesota, is commercializing a low-energy, low-heat radio wave process for drying grain that keeps grain integrity and maximizes nutrition delivery. (www.drymaxsolutions.com).
  • EarthSense, based in Illinois, has developed TerraSentia, an ultra-compact, autonomous, easy-to-use robot with multiple sensors and embedded data collection and analytics software for plant phenotyping. They are working with the seed industry and crop R&D partners to test and optimize TerraSentia. (www.earthsense.co).
  • Rabbit Tractors, based in Indiana, is developing an autonomous, mobile, multi-purposed, swarm-capable and high-ground clearance farm-production tractor for all pre-harvest activities. (www.rabbittractors.com).

Additional AgLaunch-supported teams participating are:

  • HarvestYield, based in New York, is a fleet management application for custom farmers. (www.harvestyield.com).
  • Rantizo, based in Iowa, delivers targeted liquid sprays precisely where they are needed in agricultural applications through an electrosprayer mounted on a drone, delivering minimal amounts of active agent directly to the targeted area. (www.rantizo.com).
  • Global Ag Smarte Technologies, based in Tennessee, has developed the SmarteRoot technology which increases absorption of water and nutrients to increase plant health and produce greater yield. (www.globalagsmarte.com).
  • Stable’N, based in Illinois, is a nitrification inhibitor process that utilizes electricity delivered into the soil by a retrofit to existing fertilizer application equipment. (www.stablen.com).

AgLaunch continues to expand its farm-centric innovation platform to accelerate the process of bringing new ideas into agriculture and partnering with Farm Journal Media has allowed AgLaunch and its companies to expand its reach and collaborate with other innovators in the industry.

Applications for AgLaunch365 Phase II are open now at aglaunch.com. For more information, contact Rebecca Kaufman at rkaufman@aglaunch.com.

 

About Farm Journal Media 

Farm Journal Media is the nation’s leading business information and media company serving the agricultural market. Started 140 years ago with the preeminent Farm Journal magazine, the company serves the row crop, livestock, produce and retail sectors through 26 branded websites, eNewsletters and phone apps; 11 business magazines; 70 events; six nationally broadcasted television and radio programs; a robust mobile text marketing business; and an array of data-driven paid information products. Farm Journal Media also is the majority shareholder of the online equipment marketplace Machinery Pete, LLC. In 2010, the Company established the non-profit, public charity Farm Journal Foundation, which is dedicated to sustaining agriculture’s ability to meet the vital needs of a growing population through education and empowerment.

Learn more: www.farmjournalmedia.com

 

About AgLaunch™ 

AgLaunch attracts, creates, and grows agtech startups, facilitates the development of new agriculture and food value-chains, and builds collaborative farmer networks in the Mid-South, with a commitment to intentional inclusion. AgLaunch is a joint initiative of Memphis Bioworks Foundation (www.memphisbioworks.org) and the Tennessee Department of Agriculture (www.tn.gov/agriculture). AgLaunch365 is a farm-centric innovation platform for agriculture designed to calibrate support with the specific needs of agtech startups and the agricultural industry. AgLaunch365 is made possible through partnerships with Start Co., Farm Journal Media, Archer Malmo, and Baker Donelson.

Learn more: www.aglaunch.com

AgLaunch365 Announces New Startups In Farm-Centric Platform

Three Teams in Phase I of AgLaunch365 Will Focus on Customer Discovery and Business Model Development; Phase II Applications Due November 15

MEMPHIS, Tenn. (AgPR) Nov. 2, 2017 — AgLaunch365 has accepted three new agtech startups into Phase I of its farm-centric innovation platform. AgLaunch365 provides startups with the tools needed to integrate with farmers to create and implement sophisticated field trial protocols and prepare for funding by aligned capital sources. Phase I teams will receive intensive business development support and customer discovery assistance. Teams will have access to leading accelerator programming, the AgLaunch Farmer Network, the Cultivator Mentor Network, and to AgLaunch’s partnership with Farm Journal Media, among a range of other services.

This 6-week program will be delivered through remote programming and in-person sessions held in Memphis. It will culminate at the Farm Journal AgTech Expo in Indianapolis December 11-13, 2017 (www.farmjournalagtechexpo.com).

“We are excited to support these three innovative teams who are committed to solving problems for the agriculture industry,” said Pete Nelson, President and Executive Director of AgLaunch. “Following the Phase I business development and customer discovery, these entrepreneurs will be better prepared to launch their products in the field with our extensive group of farmers during 2018.”

Phase I teams are:

  • DryMAX, based in Minnesota, is commercializing a low-energy, low-heat radio wave process for drying grain that keeps grain integrity and maximizes nutrition delivery. (www.drymaxsolutions.com).
  • EarthSense, based in Illinois, has developed TerraSentia, an ultra-compact, autonomous, easy-to-use robot with multiple sensors and embedded data collection and analytics software for plant phenotyping. They are working with the seed industry and crop R&D partners to test and optimize TerraSentia. (www.earthsense.co).
  • Rabbit Tractors, based in Indiana, is developing an autonomous, mobile, multi-purposed, swarm-capable and high-ground clearance farm-production tractor for all pre-harvest activities. (www.rabbittractors.com).

“Tennessee and the surrounding Mid-South region is becoming known as a leader for field testing and trialing new technologies and innovations in agriculture,” said, Commissioner Jai Templeton, Tennessee Department of Agriculture. “We are pleased to be able to facilitate that process to grow the overall agtech sector.”

AgLaunch365 teams are eligible for investment from a key AgLaunch partner, Innova and its USDA-certified Rural Business Investment Company fund, a $31 million fund backed by eight Farm Credit banks.

AgLaunch is a joint initiative of Memphis Bioworks Foundation and Tennessee Department of Agriculture. Innova was founded by Memphis Bioworks Foundation.

AgLaunch365 focuses on helping entrepreneurs find success by providing agriculture expertise, incubator resources, and a strong global ag specific network. Paired with the natural resources of Tennessee and the surrounding Mid-South region, AgLaunch365 has the power to help launch startups into successful businesses.

AgLaunch365 consists of three phases of support that closely align with a typical growing season. In Phase I, teams develop their business models and gain access to the Cultivator Mentor Network from October through December. Phase II participants begin in January and refine their product or technology to be “field ready” for on-farm trials with AgLaunch365’s Farmer Network beginning in the spring. Phase III teams work directly with growers in the region to test their innovation in the field during the growing seasons.

Applications to participate in Phase II can be found here: www.aglaunch.com/aglaunch-365.
Deadline for Phase II is November 15, 2017.

About AgLaunch™
AgLaunch attracts, creates, and grows agtech startups, facilitates the development of new agriculture and food value-chains, and builds collaborative farmer networks in the Mid-South, with a commitment to intentional inclusion.AgLaunch is a joint initiative of Memphis Bioworks Foundation (www.memphisbioworks.org) and the Tennessee Department of Agriculture (www.tn.gov/agriculture). AgLaunch365 is a farm-centric innovation platform for agriculture designed to calibrate support with the specific needs of agtech startups and the agricultural industry. AgLaunch365 is made possible through partnerships with Start Co., Farm Journal Media, Archer Malmo and Baker Donelson. www.aglaunch.com

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Media Release Contact:
Margaret Oldham
901-351-2904
moldham@aglaunch.com

100 Companies in Five Years is Tenn. Agriculture Industry Goal

An agricultural revolution is coming to Tennessee.

At least that’s the goal Ag Innovation Group in Memphis has set, in partnership with the Tennessee Department of Agriculture, through the formation of AgLaunch.

AgLaunch is a state-wide organization working to grow 100 agricultural companies in Tennessee throughout the next five years, Pete Nelson, CEO of Ag Innovation Group, said.

Jumping right in with the effort, the Knoxville Entrepreneur Center started AgWorks, a startup accelerator focused on agricultural companies. Throughout the 12-week program, the KEC provided general business expertise, while AgLaunch provided agriculture specific knowledge.

Fueling a $60 billion industry

There are approximately 66,000 full- or part-time farmers in Tennessee, Nelson said.

“It’s a $60 billion industry, but there’s basically little or no activity doing new things with innovation,” he said. “The goal with AgLaunch is to help build around that robust industry by adding new technology and innovation. The hope is we create companies and technologies that increase the profitability for farmers, lower the environmental impact of farm operations, create new markets, but also create more rural-urban connectivity.”

To do this, AgLaunch has set up venture capital funds and helping create accelerators like AgWorks.

Seeing Knoxville get involved so quickly is especially important to Nelson as AgLaunch works toward its goal because of the difference in agriculture East Tennessee has compared to West and Middle Tennessee.

“It just opens up a whole different set of agriculture and forestry companies,” Nelson said.

Unlike traditional startups, in which most investment capital is on the west or east coast, the agriculture industry is decentralized, Stephen Jenkins, KEC director of entrepreneurship, said. He said the presence of the University of Tennessee Institute of Agriculture and Oak Ridge National Laboratory makes Knoxville “especially primed” to generate and support new companies.

“We’re able to channel (energy from UT and ORNL), and with the agriculture community nearby, we can marry them, so products are validated faster and relationships are created faster,” Jenkins said.

A Ph.D. student turned entrepreneur 

Grow Bioplastics, which creates 100 percent biodegradable plastics for farmers, participated in AgWorks. The company has participated in multiple startup accelerators and pitch competitions across the country, winning more than $130,000.

AgWorks was the first program the company found with an agricultural focus, Grow Bioplastics co-founder Tony Bova said.

“Other programs we’ve gone to have focused on businesses that are software or technology related, and things move fast,” Bova said. “But in ag, things move slower, and the expertise is much different, so we were pretty excited about having people that were specifically looking at the area we wanted to be in.”

Bova, a Ph.D. student at UT, believes AgLaunch at programs like AgWorks are a step in the right direction, comparing the future of the agriculture industry to past industrial revolutions.

“Other industrial revolutions that have helped society move to its next level have been the result of great partnerships between academia, government and industry, and in agriculture, the level of innovation has been there, but hasn’t seen the support from all three together to really say that we have a revolution,” he said. “There are a lot of great things coming. I think it’s just getting started.”

Bova sees research at UT and ORNL through his doctoral program that sometimes ends when it’s published.

“It takes great partnerships with industry, with tech transer and startups in general to bring those researched ideas out to the masses,” he said. “To me, it takes businesses to be able to do that.”

Completing the puzzle

Connecting with leaders in the agriculture industry is crucial for entrepreneurs like Bova, he said, calling people with great ideas “one piece of the puzzle.”

The puzzle is completed when those people have support from seasoned business leaders. Michael Whitt also participated in AgWorks. His company, Cattle Sync, is an app that will allow cattle farmers to enter information about the care of their herd and streamline the sales process digitally.

He said AgWorks was “huge” for his company.

“It helped me look at agriculture on a high level versus on a low level, which I’m used to,” he said. “The exposure to different opportunities for funding and to see how the investment piece works was very useful.”

Alex Adams’ company Geo Air also benefited from industry networking. Adams is working to lower the number of crops destroyed by mold. He said one-third of the world’s crops go bad because of mold. Looking at only corn crops, that equals approximately $20 billion in the U.S. and $260 million in Tennessee on average.

Geo Air uses drones to find mold in crops before it becomes a problem, using technology that identifies mold spores in the air before they ruin the crop. Existing technology uses imaging, which can only identify the problem after it has damaged the crop.

“There were a couple times where I was sitting there trying to think through an idea or trying to find the right person, but it would take me like two months to figure it out,” Adams said. “Then (during AgWorks) there were a couple days that ended up being a 10 minute conversation. It gave me a super big leap on developing my business.”

100 companies in five years

Lasting communication between companies and industry leaders is key to reaching AgLaunch’s goal, Nelson said. The mindset at KEC is representative of how Nelson sees the goal being met.

“We would hold (KEC) up as a model across the state, because they’re not competitive, they’re open-minded and smart,” he said. “They modeled all the behaviors that would be great if all of us had in terms of building a good cooperation.”

By next summer, Nelson hopes to have the startup’s products being tested in the field.

Applications Open for Agricultural Innovation Companies to Participate in AgLaunch365

Farm-Centric Program Assists in Field Trials & Attracting Investment

MEMPHIS, Tenn. (September 7, 2017) – AgLaunch is excited to announce applications are open for its latest initiative AgLaunch365, which combines its leading accelerator program with its network of innovative farmers in a flexible wrap-around model that revolves around the agricultural production cycle.

AgLaunch365 will operate in three phases, allowing startups to participate in the phases that are relevant to each company’s stage of growth. The year-round program includes:

  1. Phase I: Business model development  – “customer discovery”
  2. Phase II: Refine product – “getting field ready”
  3. Phase III: Access to network of innovative farmers – “field trials”

AgLaunch365 is now accepting applications from agricultural startup companies seeking to participate in any phase of the program targeting the following areas:

  • Precision Farming
    • Management of inputs
    • Soil & crop tech
    • Irrigation & water tech, sustainability enablers
  • Farming technology
    • New equipment
    • Robotics or automation
  • New, innovative technologies
    • Crop production, harvest & storage
    • Supply chain & logistics
    • Processing/productivity tools, diagnostics
    • Food safety, security
  • Animal Health & Nutrition
    • Welfare practices
    • Healthcare improvements

Here are a few of the tools that AgLaunch365 participants will have access to throughout the year:

  • Programming:
    • Customized programming focused on agriculture from AgLaunch and lean startup business development facilitated by Start Co.
    • Support from a national network of mentors and service providers including Archer Malmo and Baker Donelson
    • First-hand access to industry expertise in the Memphis & Mid-South region including row crop production and logistics (blockchain, intramodal)
    • Virtual programming opportunities with Knoxville Entrepreneur Center and other partners
  • Funding:
    • Seed stage (historically $25k – $50k for Phase I companies) and potential for follow-on investment from Innova Ag Innovation Fund IV, a licensed USDA Rural Business Investment Company funded by eight Farm Credit banks
    • Access to our network of leading venture capital partners with expertise in agriculture, such as Cultivian Sandbox Ventures
    • Cost-share program to help farmers underwrite costs of new agtech trials that can create first customers for the startup and lower the risk for farmers to try new innovations
  • Farmer engagement:
    • Field trials and access to leading farmers & farm organizations including Ritter Agribusiness & Mid-South Family Farms
    • Access to a network of universities and research farms including Agricenter International to support 3rd party research
  • Visibility:
    • Direct access to Farm Journal as an exclusive media channel partner, including behind-the-scenes access to events like AgTech Expo
    • Participation in events including: Farm Bureau’s Agriculture Investment Summit & the Startup Station at the Mid-South Farm & Gin Show

AgLaunch365 reflects the continued refining of our model to revolutionize the way agricultural innovation is brought to market. Through our experiences to date, we’ve found what works, but we’ve also seen the opportunity to tailor our program even more effectively,” says AgLaunch President, Pete Nelson. “AgLaunch365 will accommodate the specific needs and timing of those working in the ag industry in a strategic way that has never before been done in the industry.”

Startups will have the ability to enter the program based on their developmental needs and how their product fits in the farm planning and cropping cycle.  Entrepreneurs who participate will have dedicated blocks of time for programming in Memphis, TN, but also have flexibility to travel or be in the field to conduct normal business and assignments in-between programming.

“AgLaunch is situated in one of the best areas for ag entrepreneurs. Not only is the region rich with natural resources, but Tennessee sees the value in ag innovation,” says Tennessee Commissioner of Agriculture, Jai Templeton. “AgLaunch is bringing the right people – from investors, entrepreneurs, and those within the ag industry – to a region that supports innovation and agriculture.”

AgLaunch365 phases are designed to build upon each other and startup teams are invited to apply for all three phases or for one specific phase, based on their needs.

AgLaunch365 is open to companies at all stages, offering early-stage help or later access to progressive farmers who can help ground-truth innovative technology.

Application deadlines are:

  • For entry in the entire program, applications due by 8:00 a.m. CT on Monday, October 2, 2017.
  • For field ready phase, applications due by 8:00 a.m. CT on Monday, November 6, 2017
  • To access the field trial network, applications due by 8:00 a.m. CT on Monday, January 8, 2018.

Go to www.aglaunch.com for more information about AgLaunch365 or to apply click here.

To view a video on the AgLaunch program click: https://youtu.be/BhfMFnJyS08 and to view pitches from the past AgLaunch Accelerator participants, go to:  http://bit.ly/2hDTGN7.

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About AgLaunch™ 

AgLaunch develops agtech startups, creates value-chain companies, builds collaborative farmer networks and addresses gaps in the regional food and ag innovation ecosystem. The goal is to attract, start and grow 100 agricultural startup companies by 2022. AgLaunch is a joint initiative of Memphis Bioworks Foundation® and the Tennessee Department of Agriculture.

Changing the Farmer’s Role in AgTech Commercialization

The following insights and opinions are from Pete Nelson, president and executive director for the Memphis-based AgLaunch Initiative.

 

As you have been reading in farm magazines or heard at conferences over the last couple of years, there is an increasing interest and investment in the development of new agricultural technologies and the creation of new “startup” companies to bring innovations to market. This interest is driven by the need to feed a growing population, changing food consumption patterns, increased pressure on natural resources, and  the dramatic reduction of the cost of technologies such as genomic sequencing and data. There is no doubt there are changes and that farming is being confronted with thousands of new technologies from all sides.

Farmers have always been at the forefront of developing new innovations and technologies since the beginning of agriculture. These innovations addressed direct needs on the farm and created solutions that could work economically and efficiently. Now there is a huge increase in the amount of new technology (much of it unproven) that gets pitched to you, and there is also on an increasing disconnect between those creating new innovations and you the farmer. We all have stories of seeing a new idea presented from an excited entrepreneur that we know at first glance won’t work for very practical reasons.

The disconnect between those who are creating new innovations and the farm is dramatically lowering the probability of success for new agricultural ventures, which is in turn giving investors pause and is certainly not accelerating adoption quickly. There is a new way – the Farm Centric Innovation model will change the entire agricultural investment thesis into new ventures. And most excitedly, this means an increasing role for farmers in the creation and refining of new ideas, and not just being the customer. It’s a full-circle return to how it used to be with a modern twist.

One of the biggest issues with this divide between innovation creation and the farmer is that often the new technology is not tried in real farm conditions, nor is it tried early enough to contribute towards make-or-break decisions on whether or not to continue to invest in the new idea. This means a lot of investor capital is being deployed for too long on dead ends. In fact, this problem is so bad the many who are developing new technologies, even those working within traditional agricultural research institutions, increasingly view the farmer as a “first customer” but not as an innovation partner.

This must change. To approach a farmer as a first customer with a half-baked product is always a bad idea. As everyone who is reading this knows, farmers are a well-networked group and word travels fast about snake oil or things that are promises or not delivered to bring forward an idea that’s not been properly validated in the field.

Trying to sell a farmer as a first customer on an idea that has not been field validated is not a good idea. However, farmers will continue to prove willing partners in helping take an idea and turning it into a fully functioning product if given the chance. Within the Farm Centric Innovation model, your role in new innovation development includes trying a new technology in the field at farm scale and providing feedback on common sense observations on how to improve the product. For example, does a new harvesting robot have enough ground clearance, or if it’s a new voice recognition technology, will it be accurate even when being used on a loud combine? This on-farm work provide meaningful feedback to continue to optimize solutions, which is both good for the startup innovator as well as for the investors and ultimately ensuring a product is ready to actually go to market.

Another key role for farmers is helping originate new ideas. You are on the front lines of experiencing the world’s largest problems such as the effects of herbicide-resistant weeds, nitrogen inefficiencies, and a long list of additional issues. Farmers have done and can continue to do a great job in helping identify these problems and working with innovators that have solutions to address them.

Still, the majority of groups working in the agricultural innovation space are at least one step removed from being able to work directly with farmers in the field. You can go to agricultural investment conferences and meetings where the latest technologies in the pipeline are discussed and investors make decisions on where to invest and never find a farmer. You can spend time with a big multinational seed and chemical companies talking about the farmers without farmers being in the room. This disconnect remains the standard, which is driving much slower adoption rates and probability of success. The Farm Centric Model is driving the common goal of incorporating farmers in the innovation ecosystem early and its full participants (not just first customers).

Thankfully, there are some good examples emerging, such as the Western Growers Association, which has partnered with Taylor Farms to build an incubator and coworker space, participated in accelerators, and worked with venture-capital firms to support startups in addressing real-world problems in the vegetable and specialty crop production arena. Another great example is the Iowa Corn Opportunities Fund, which is a venture capital fund started by the Iowa Corn Growers. This fund has repositioned Iowa Corn’s farmer members as partners in the innovation development with other venture capital sources.

Probably most exciting are the farmers and farm organizations that are being set up to partner with startup accelerators and incubators to take a key role in developing technology. These “farmer networks” have many models, but include groups such as Fall Line Capital, Indigo Partners, Oxbow Agriculture, Lawrence Group, Ritter Agribusiness, and Mid-South Family Farms to name a few. These organizations are set up to partner with an early-stage idea or innovation, keep the cost of field trials low by trading for equity and/or future rights to invest, and the farmers receive other benefits from spending time and energy working with a technology early. The start-up receives a willing and able partner, visibility, data collection and third-party validation that can be used to raise investment money, attract additional partners and first customers.

There are many examples of how this is already working. One example is start-up called AgVoice, which has a voice recognition technology for agriculture that simplifies crop scouting and other recordkeeping efforts. This technology was validated in fields in Mississippi, Tennessee and Arkansas in 2016 working with Ritter Agribusiness and Mid-South Family Farms. The validation included a lot of really basic concepts. For example, will the technology work in the cab of a tractor or combine when it gets noisy, will the ear piece stay on your ear when you’re in the middle of scouting a hot cotton field, and will the lexicon be robust enough to record all the farm practices necessary and will the records be accurate? The results of this real-world field trial were excellent with the feedback incorporated by AgVoice. A report was generated that has been used to raise further investment and attract additional customers. This is just one example of many in which new technologies are being field validated.

We believe in this role for the farmer as a partner in innovation, not just a first customer will change the entire agricultural investment thesis. This will bring forward more successful startups change the probability of success in a positive direction and bring forward solutions that more efficiently address real-world agricultural problems. There’s a lot more that needs to be communicated, but we invite farmers and those who work directly with farmers into this Farm Centric Model we’re developing to help change the role of farmers in innovation.

Meet the Startups Seeking to Change Farming

Not all high-tech entrepreneurs are urban.

Five agriculture-related startups from East Tennessee will join in a 12-week business accelerator program this summer, beginning with a July 18 kickoff party at Sizzle TechStart, 487 Sam Rayburn Parkway in Lenoir City.

The 6 p.m. party will include dinner, refreshments, and “a brief introduction of the program and teams,” according to a news release. Registration is free at www.eventbrite.com/e/agworks-launch-party-tickets-35765989036.

“The event is open to the general public; however, we have primarily focused marketing on individuals within the agriculture industry,” Stephen Jenkins of the Knoxville Entrepreneur Center said via email. “Our outreach included farmers, UT extension agents, UTRF, ag-entrepreneurs, etc.”

The entrepreneur center is co-hosting the party with AgLaunch, an initiative of Memphis Bioworks Foundation and the Tennessee Department of Agriculture which seeks to boost 100 new farm-oriented startups by 2022.

The accelerator program is called AgWorks, and is funded by Launch Tennessee, USDA and Tennessee Department of Agriculture. Its first five participants are:

  • Grow Bioplastics, which makes a biodegradable plastic that can be plowed under after use;
  • Cattle Market Mobile, which compiles federal commodity data for farmers;
  • Geo Air, which uses drones to make heat maps of mold “hot spots” in crops;
  • Tomboy Organic Skincare, which makes organic skin care products and makeup from regional plants; and
  • Urban Valley Farms, which makes protein powder from crickets as sustainable and inexpensive food.

The business accelerator program will feature development sessions, mentorship, workshops, and investment access help through AgLaunch, according to the news release.

Sizzle TechStart is in a renovated farmhouse in Roane Regional Business & Technology Park. Sam Weaver, founder of Proton Power Inc., created the business-launch center there in 2015, in the same building where Proton Power started in 2007. Grow Bioplastics is already a tenant.

Innova Memphis Raises $31m Rural America Ag Innovation Fund

Innova Memphis, an early-stage venture capital firm, has closed its latest fund, Innova Ag Innovation Fund IV. This marks the firm’s fourth fund.

Founded in 2007 by the Memphis Bioworks Foundation, Innova focuses on starting and funding high-growth companies in the biosciences, technology and agtech fields. Bioworks is focused on invigorating Memphis and the surrounding Delta region focusing on agriculture/food, logistics, materials, and human health.

As part of the USDA’s Rural Business Investment Program (RBIP), the fund has been certified and licensed to operate as a Rural Business Investment Company (RBIC). The RBIP is part of the White House’s Made in Rural America export and investment initiative designed to draw capital and infrastructure support to rural communities in the US.

The goal of each RBIC is to help fill the need for business and development capital in rural areas. A minimum of 75% of funds from an RBIC must be made in rural areas with a population of 50,000 or less, a minimum of 50% of funds must be invested in smaller enterprises, and a maximum of 10% may be invested in urban areas.

Why Agtech?

Innova’s interest in agtech started many years ago, but Innova partner Jan Bouten became particularly motivated when he learned that Advantage Capital Agribusiness Partners completed the RBIC certification process and closed a $154.5 million fund with the initial goal of reaching $100 million.

“We started investigating how it works and had our first meeting with Farm Credit to gauge their interest,” Jan Bouten, partner, tells AgFunderNews. “We really wanted to combine Innova’s background in early-stage investing with AgLaunch Accelerator director Pete Nelson’s background in agriculture and agtech.”

Also, having grown up in a heavily agricultural region in the Netherlands, the focus on agtech was a natural progression for Bouten, who also has a lengthy tech investing history.

Fund Focus

The $31 million fund will focus on early-stage investments located in rural America, and will work with various national farm organizations and other partners to identify, enable and accelerate companies with high growth potential in the rapidly expanding agtech sector.

Considering that Silicon Valley reigns supreme in tech and that many other cities are clamoring for the title of “agtech capital,” limiting the fund’s focus to rural regions may cause some to pause.

“In general, I think companies should be where their customers are. That is one thing we are going to do very heavily. For every investment we make, we will talk to end users and farmers about it,” Bouten tells AgFunderNews. As for finding enough companies that fit the RBIP’s investment requirements, he isn’t fazed.

“Since we first announced that we are going after this, we have seen a lot of companies and I don’t forsee any issues fitting those criteria.” In fact, he believes that more and more startups may eschew the city centers for rural areas both as a way to cut down on big city expenses and to get closer to their end users. For Bouten, the ability to interface with the customer is critical.

Located in the heart of the Delta region, Innova believes it is perfectly situated to identify these opportunities locally and throughout the US.

Innova has identified five key focus areas for the fund:

  • Farming technology, equipment and enabling innovation, including robotics. 
  • New technologies pertaining to crop production, harvest, storage, supply chain/logistics and processing/productivity tools and software.
  • Areas of precision agriculture such as crop, water, and chemicals management.
  • Innovations addressing food security, safety, and nutrition challenges.
  • Novel animal health and welfare systems and practices.

And while he isn’t ruling any technologies out at this point, Bouten has some clear parameters for the technologies that fit the fund’s goals.

“We will mostly be looking at the adaptation of existing core technologies to this field. I don’t think we will look at a lot of deals where the core technology still has high risks, or needs another five to seven years of R&D before we know if it actually works,” he explains.

“The benefits that we are seeing from having such amazing technology put in consumer devices in the last 10 years has driven down the cost of very powerful sensors, processors, networks that until fairly recently were not available to put to work in agriculture because it would cost too much. The time is right now to take advantage of the billions of cell phones and devices that have made all this stuff really cheap so we can now introduce it to agriculture.”

This isn’t Innova’s first foray into agtech, with existing portfolio companies including precision ag company AgSmarts and sweetbio, a biotech company creating a medicinal honey-based product.

Partnerships

Innova is in the process of finding the right partnerships to aid it with this endeavor, and has already indicated that it will work closely with the AgLaunch Accelerator. AgLaunch is a venture development organization, accelerator and farmer network organization, which focuses on a farm-centric commercialization model for agricultural innovation. Bioworks created AgLaunch, in conjunction with the Tennessee Department of Agriculture as part of its mission to boost the region’s vitality and with the goal of focusing on the agriculture and food entrepreneurial community.

Although the parties do not have an official relationship requiring Innova to invest in the program’s companies, Bouten recognizes a strong synergy between the fund and AgLaunch’s focus. As for additional partners, Bouten is in the process of identifying other outlets.

“Thanks to AgFunder’s report on accelerators and all the agtech and foodtech resources that exist, we have been quite active in talking to many of those accelerators and programs and will continue to do so over the next couple months to solidify partnerships where it makes sense,” he says.

In May 2016, the first agtech-focused RBIC launched, called the Open Prairie Rural Opportunities Fund. Managed my Midwest agtech investment firm Open Prairie Ventures and totaling $100 million, it marks the firm’s fourth fund.

AgLaunch Announces 2017 Accelerator Companies

More than 125 ag startups from across the globe expressed interest in the 2017 AgLaunch Accelerator, many of which were referred by leading venture capital groups and farmer organizations. Ultimately, three startups were chosen based on their stage of business, product development lifecycle and need to access the local agricultural ecosystem.

AgLaunch is pleased to announce these companies will participate in the Summer of Acceleration programming in Memphis:

  • Microbiometer (Englewood, NJ): Microbiometer is a rapid on-site soil testing tool that measures microbial mass. This means soil health can be assessed quickly and inexpensively, compared to traditional assay methods.
  • Persistence Data Mining (San Diego, CA): Using proprietary UAV technology, Persistence Data Mining rapidly develops soil nutrient maps over large tracts of farmland. These maps dramatically improve the efficiency of automated fertilizer applications by providing more detail than traditional soil sampling methods.
  • Kilimo (Cordoba, Argentina): Kilimo provides a decision support tool for irrigation management in broadacre agriculture. Using satellite, climate, and on site data, Kilimo feeds their proprietary Big Data engine to make the best possible irrigation prescription for each crop.

 

AgLaunch Accelerator invests $50,000/team and three months of intensive business development support, access to farm trials and a robust mentor network to up to six startup companies every year. Funding is provided by Innova Memphis, a Memphis Bioworks-founded early stage venture capital firm focused on starting and funding high-growth companies in the bioscience, medical, agricultural and logistics fields.

Participating startups will be immersed in a collaborative Summer of Acceleration experience in Memphis with six other business accelerators May 1- August 10. Entrepreneurial programming is supported through the expertise of EPIcenter and Start Co., a member of the Global Accelerator Network that has led more than 80 startup companies. Startups will also have access to expert agri-marketing and legal advice provided by Archer Malmo and Baker Donelson respectively.

“In its second year, AgLaunch continues to expand its farm-centric innovation platform to accelerate the process of bringing new ideas into agriculture,” said Steve Bares, Ph.D., president and executive director, Memphis Bioworks Foundation.

“The organization offers a one-stop shop for researchers, farmers, logistic providers, processors, non-profits, investors and corporate partners to help validate and grow new ideas in the agricultural space. Memphis provides the perfect opportunity to connect with all these assets in our unique geographical location allowing for incredibly diverse agriculture opportunities.”

“The Tennessee Department of Agriculture is proud to collaborate with AgLaunch to invest in innovative companies that are advancing agriculture,” said Tennessee Commissioner of Agriculture Jai Templeton. “By matching entrepreneurs with farmers in a farm-focused model, AgLaunch helps fine-tune innovations faster to ensure a higher success rate in solving global problems such as water and nutrient management.”

AgLaunch Accelerator alumni have benefitted from this intensive program by receiving both entrepreneurial and agricultural resources that meet their unique needs as well as post-accelerator support.

“We were coached and mentored by very skilled professionals on how to run a business and be true entrepreneurs in this business category,” says AgLaunch Accelerator alumni Umer Adnan of Cowlar, Inc. maker of a smart collar for cows. “We feel like we are better entrepreneurs because of the experience.”

The AgLaunch Accelerator not only focuses on building entrepreneurs, but offers agriculture expertise, incubator type resources and a strong ag specific network. Paired with the natural resources of the Delta region, the AgLaunch Accelerator has the power to help launch the right startups into successful businesses.

“While working from downtown Memphis, startups will have access to a wide variety of entrepreneurial resources and services,” said Pete Nelson, President and Executive Director of AgLaunch. “Yet entrepreneurs will be able to easily access farmland from their workspace, as AgLaunch is uniquely combining the startup world with the innovation and expertise of farmers.”

In addition to the 2017 accelerator teams, several teams that are further along in their business or product development cycle are participating in the AgLaunch Farmer Network. This AgLaunch program coordinates farm scale trials with new technologies across various production environments and key crops grown in the MidSouth region that includes six major commodities: corn, soybeans, cotton, rice, grain sorghum and wheat. Lead members of the Farmer Network include Ritter Agribusiness and Mid-South Family Farms.

Ritter Ag Supports Farm Innovation Through AgLaunch Partnership

Ritter Agribusiness is helping to bridge a gap between technology companies and farms by providing testing grounds for startups associated with the AgLaunch initiative.

Ritter Ag, based in the eastern Arkansas town of Marked Tree, owns about 32,000 acres of Mississippi Delta farmland and manages another 16,000 acres, said Kevin Wright, president, providing a diverse landscape on which tech startup companies can test their farm innovations in fields like precision agriculture, robotics, biologic-based pest control and supply chain integrity.

AgLaunch is a Memphis-based program that aims to connect agricultural researchers, entrepreneurs, corporations, nonprofit organizations, investors and farmers, in order to address farm and food supply chain needs, according to its website. It is run through a partnership between the Memphis Bioworks Foundation and the Tennessee Department of Agriculture and focuses on companies within the U.S. Delta region. AgLaunch’s programs include the AgLaunch Accelerator, a three-month agriculture tech startup accelerator program.

Investment in farming innovation was a $3.2 billion industry in 2016. That’s according to AgFunder’s annual AgTech Investing Report and shows a decrease from an all-time high in 2015 at $4.6 billion.

It will soon announce its second cohort, and those six companies have to potential to receive up to $50,000 collectively in funding, business development support, mentorship and farm trials May 1-Aug. 10.

The AgLaunch Accelerator is funded in part through a grant from Launch Tennessee. More information is available by emailing brussell@aginnovationgroup.com.

AgLaunch also hosts events the Startup Station pitch competition, an all-day pitch contest held in conjunction with the Mid-South Farm & Gin Show, which hosts more than 400 exhibitors and 20,000 farmers, according to the AgLaunch website.

The latest Startup Station event was in early March, and startups pitched to expert panels comprised of farmers, investors and corporate partners. Wright served on the panel for the March event.

Ritter Ag became involved with AgLaunch about two years ago, as lead participant in the organization’s Farmer Network.

“The relationship has evolved around the need for tech companies, at all stages, to have a better understanding of the pain points that today’s producers’ experience,” Wright said.

In addition to serving as a resource for testing with a certain land and crop mix, Ritter Ag also provides “critical feedback” to the startups in relation to product development, marketing and distribution channels, Wright said.

Arkansas State University has also partnered with AgLaunch, said Ty Keller, director of the program, A-State Innovate. For its part, ASU will provide access to its maker space, machine and wood shop and lab for companies chosen by AgLaunch to develop their technology. Researchers and entrepreneurs tied to the ASU also have participated in AgLaunch’s startup pitch competitions.

Agriculture is an important industry in Arkansas. About 45,000 farms (latest estimate, in 2012) brought in $1.3 billion in net income for 2015, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Economic Research Service.