By JAMIE SEARS RAWLINGS
WEST LAYFAYETTE, Ind. — A solar-powered dehydrator for specialty crops from JUA Technologies International; Rabbit Tractors, compact, autonomous tractors that can boost efficiency for farmers; Cattlog, an online marketplace where producers can buy and sell cattle on-the-go.
All of these companies are providing useful technologies geared toward making the sometimes arduous task of farming easier, more efficient or more innovative.
And all of them have another thing in common as well: They sprung from ag-tech incubator or accelerator programs that are rising up to help make sense of the flood of capital into the agriculture industry, and interest in the sector as potentially the biggest opportunity for innovation and investment since the Silicon Valley explosion in the 1980s and early ’90s.
There are various accelerator or incubator programs in the heartland, all similar in their goal of delivering fresh ideas into fields – but varying slightly in the operational matter of that delivery.
The Purdue Foundry, a program designed to incubate ideas spawned by members of the faculty of Purdue University, has seen a recent boon in agriculture technology companies. “Since July 2013, we have had 22 ag-related startups formed,” said Tim Peoples, managing director.
For those nearly two dozen companies, the Foundry provides training and support from start to finish – a concept David Ebert found crucial when he and his team began VinSense. It’s a technology that allows farmers to integrate all the data available to them in order to make effective decisions about their farm operations and crop health.
Ebert, currently the Silicon Valley Professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering at Purdue, recalled the beginnings of his company’s research.
“We started working with the idea of what this need was, especially with wine grape growers and wineries in California dealing with unprecedented growing conditions, trying to figure out how to deal with lack of water, high temperatures and other factors,” he explained.
“We started developing the idea and working with this in terms of research of how to take all this data and make it so it’s understandable. We had the impression that this would be something that would have a big impact and would really be useful to people out in the field.”
Enter the Foundry, which helped Ebert and his team turn VinSense from an “impression” to a fully-formed realization.
“Working with the Purdue Foundry, they worked us through the whole process of the ideation, really getting down what our goal was, what we thought we could deliver, coming up with all the different market channels we could look at, all the different applications for what we were talking about and helped us focus on coming up with messaging and the ability to really tell the story, of how the technology and background of our founders was able to come in and solve a problem and really give that market value proposition both to people who are interested in the company as well as our end-users,” he said.
“That process really helped us understand the whole business development, the stages of startups, the way to go from idea to product launch.”
For Klein Ileleji, a professor of agricultural and biological engineering at Purdue, the Foundry was instrumental in his ability to grow and fund JUA Technologies International, his company that developed DEHYTRAY. It will be available to specialty crop farmers this month as one of the market’s only solar-powered drying devices.
Designed to harness the power of the sun to do a job typically tasked to electricity on most small to mid-sized farms, DEHYTRAY and a second dryer that will be introduced in the near future were funded in part by two ag-tech accelerator programs that the Foundry works with to fund its startups.
In addition, Ileleji said he and his company have benefited from the training, professional development, mentorship and networking available from the Foundry.
Tech’s ardent matchmakers
Taking the ag-tech startup game to the next level are various accelerator programs scattered throughout the nation’s breadbasket, which act essentially as matchmakers pairing investors who are pouring capital into agriculture technology with innovators who have products they believe can move the industry forward.
One such accelerator program, The Yield Lab, is based in St. Louis, Mo. Since its founding in 2014, Principal Matt Plummer said the program has made 28 investments in ag-tech companies throughout North America, Europe and Latin America.
“I believe our role in the agriculture industry is to identify, invest and mentor those cutting-edge technologies that are going to increase value across the value chain, from farmer to consumer,” he said, “and do so in a sustainable fashion.”
Plummer believes one key to the success of his company is its relationship with the growers involved in the process. “We have an extensive group of agribusiness professionals and growers who really help us select strong portfolio companies and work alongside them developing a marketable product.
“We have made a very concerted effort to bring more growers into our program to work with our companies and help us select investments that are most likely to succeed,” he said.
The Yield Lab guarantees investment for its portfolio companies, which participate in a 12-month program designed to capture a typical grow season.
For AgLaunch, an accelerator program based in Memphis, Tenn., not only are growers part of the incubation and training of startups in the portfolio, they are also investors of the nearly two dozen teams that have accelerated their products using the AgLaunch model, which President and CEO Pete Nelson calls “farm-centric.”
“AgLaunch isn't a typical accelerator in that we start and end on the farm. Farmers are a part of our process and programming from day one,” he explained. “Farmers are partners, and not just customers. We allow them to be part of the equity deals that are developed with companies, making them true investors of time, money and energy into these companies.”
Innovation and technology has always been an integral part of modern agriculture, but the flood of interest and, subsequently, capital, into the industry has caused an acceleration that some say can only benefit everyone along the chain.
“Obviously, if you have programs like this, or a lot of investment and excitement in the space, you definitely will get technologies that are innovative out there for farmers to access to improve their productivity,” Ileleji said.
“We’ve not seen that type of excitement until now, and the good thing about that, I think, is even the ag accelerators or investment sectors that are common to Silicon Valley are beginning to realize that there are huge opportunities in agriculture that can improve farmers’ productivity, increase investments and ultimately profitability for shareholders.
“With the increase in investment and in what I call media attention, ultimately growers will gain, customers will gain and investors will gain,” he added. “It’s exciting to see the infuse of all this excitement in agriculture, which we typically have not seen.”