Editor’s Note: Brandon Russell is portfolio manager at the Ag Innovation Development Group in Memphis, Tennessee. Here he writes about how the group’s offerings for startups have developed and the benefits of being based in the Mid-South.
Most of you reading this will likely agree that agriculture, particularly in the United States, is a unique industry. Long-standing relationships built on trust, multiple generations of management on the same farm, and one (sometimes two) shots at revenue for an
entire year all make developing successful production technologies a one-of-a-kind experience. As many companies and investors that are new to the space are finding out – it’s not easy. The difficulty is compounded by the relative immaturity of the recent agtech investment wave. In nearly all other industry segments, you have serial entrepreneurs that have built multiple companies within their area of expertise. This industry-specific entrepreneurial talent is hard to find in agriculture.
This is why it’s increasingly important that entrepreneurs in the sector have plenty of resources to draw on to help them succeed. By combining the right resources and partners, it is possible for teams to commercialize impactful innovations that reduce risk, increase yields, expand margins, and increase both efficiency and safety throughout the value chain.
We believe the Mid-South will be the next hotbed of agricultural innovation because growers in the region have proven their willingness to adopt early when the technology is solid. Bt cotton, Roundup Ready genetics, and furrow irrigation provide but a few examples. There is no other place in the world that you can access a combination of these types of growers, crop diversity at scale (corn, cotton, wheat, soy, rice, sorghum), specialty crops (peanuts, sweet potatoes, tomatoes, and more), with diverse and plentiful water (our region is one of the most heavily irrigated in the US), and direct access to major post-harvest logistics services along the Mississippi River. It’s an innovator’s dream, and it’s the platform that powers AgLaunch activities.
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Three months after our first Demo Day, the cohort continues to make solid progress in the New Year. Skycision, which facilitates early detection of crop stress through satellite and drone imagery, is successfully raising money on the back of a strong product and growing customer interest. YieldStart, an innovative seed coating product, is beginning testing with a new strategic partner – a market leader on biological inputs. Secure Food Solutions is executing additional research and product development under their $225,000 Small Business Technology Transfer grant from the National Science Foundation. The funding supports calibration of their rapid aflatoxin detection systems. Animal wearable technology Cowlar leveraged their success in the AgLaunch Accelerator to gain entrance to Y Combinator where they continue to craft their product by expanding the breeds of dairy cows with which they work.
This year, we’re doing things a little differently, and have launched three simultaneous initiatives to help startups in the region, which I’ve laid out below. We hope it will allow teams to have immediate and deep access to expertise across the value chain.
1. AgLaunch Accelerator – a 15-week cohort-based accelerator offering $50k in upfront equity investment in the form of a Secure Agreement for Future Equity (SAFE). Participating teams receive intensive customer discovery, business model building, and business development training in addition to access to industry experts. Leading ag-tech venture capitalists participate in evaluating teams. The accelerator runs in Memphis, TN giving entrepreneurs access to all major US row crops as well as select specialty crops. Applications are due March 1.
2. AgLaunch Farmer Network – for in-field technologies, developing early strategic relationships with growers is absolutely critical, especially if you are not a farmer-entrepreneur. Having growers involved at the ground floor allows for immediate feedback that informs iteration as well as helps to set strategic direction. The AgLaunch Farmer Network allows for selected companies to develop these relationships with leading growers in the Mississippi River Delta. Apply on a rolling basis by emailing me here.
3. AgLaunch Startup Station at the Farm & Gin Show – The Startup Station is an all-day pitch contest held on March 3 in conjunction with the Mid-South Farm & Gin Show, which hosts more than 400 exhibitors and 20,000 farmers. Startups will pitch to expert panels comprised of farmers, investors, and corporate partners, including Farm Bureau, Farm Credit, DuPont, Monsanto Growth Ventures, and Case IH. The contest is startup-stage agnostic. If you would like to pitch, email me by Friday, February 17.