A novel technology and compelling value proposition is the first critical step for an ag startup to enter the US market. But navigating the regulatory, finance, marketing and geographic hurdles involved can be overwhelming for many international companies, says Billi Hunt, executive director at America’s Cultivation Corridor.
“When I started at America’s Cultivation Corridor three years ago, I kept hearing from organizations trying to help international startups enter the US market that there was no program or roadmap on how to do it,” Hunt tells AFN. “After hearing the same thing from three or four countries, we knew there was a need.”
America’s Cultivation Corridor created the Cultivo Global Ag Innovation Program to help fill this void by developing a curriculum of resources, establishing mentorships, and facilitating connections with leading farmer, business, and research leaders in Iowa.
“Iowa is the perfect place to host a program like Cultivo,” says Doug Moore, Iowa business leader and entrepreneur-in-residence for the first Cultivo cohort. “There is no other place in the country where all the major players for crops, livestock, biofuels, equipment, precision ag, and predictive technologies are located, as well as the research leadership at Iowa State University and a strong group of services businesses who understand the ag industry.”
The program was initially designed as a 10-day, in-person experience in Iowa. But when the Covid-19 pandemic interrupted those plans, the Corridor responded by creating the Cultivo Virtual Academy – a six-week program that maintains the charter of the original program in a virtual environment.
Startups hoping to enter the US market face a number of challenges, according to Hunt.
The biggest of these is networking and finding the right advisors and mentors to help chart the right path. To that end, Cultivo is geared towards facilitating connections for international startups – pairing them with the right individuals who can help with their distinct needs.
The Cultivo program provides a robust curriculum with presentations and discussions led by industry leaders as well as legal, finance, regulatory, and other experts who provide real-world expertise. Topics include an introduction to the US startup community and its entrepreneurial ecosystem, investment landscape, financial system, and regulatory programs; supply chain and workforce considerations; pathways for introducing technologies; and how to connect for partnerships and acquisitions to build a business.
The program’s virtual hub provides an environment for participants to chat, share resources, and access curriculum materials provided by presenters as well as recordings of sessions and program updates. It also acts as a connection point after a cohort is completed, with the goal of allowing all members to connect with new cohorts as the program grows.
Cultivo participants who complete the program are invited to attend a week-long, in-person event in Iowa. The first program is planned for 2022 and will feature additional opportunities for mentorship, networking, and tours of Iowa farms and the Iowa State University campus.
Six companies recently completed the inaugural cohort of the Cultivo Virtual Academy, including Australian startups AgriDigital, Bondi Labs, Escavox, Safe Ag Systems, and SWAN Systems, and UK-based ArcitekBio.
“It was exciting to see the connections that our first cohort members have made here in Iowa with leaders in the US ag value chain, from major multinational corporations, to farmers, to researchers at Iowa State University,” Hunt says. “Even with the diverse range of technologies they are developing, we were able to link them with experts with the specific resources and background to advance their stage of business and market development.”
The first cohort companies featured a wide range of technologies including grain tracking tools; applications and trackers to improve compliance and safety for meat and produce; a platform for managing safety and compliance requirements; a precision irrigation tool; and a new biotechnological platform for producing a natural sweetener.
More than 25 Iowa business leaders and farmers participated in the weekly virtual sessions throughout the six-week program, including representatives from Corteva Agriscience, John Deere, REG, Kent Corporation, and Sukup Manufacturing Co, and Iowa-based startups like Rantizo and PowerPollen. In addition, each cohort member connected with faculty and researchers at Iowa State University and Iowa farmers for individual conversations.
“The Cultivo program has been an incredible experience for our company,” says Katrina Stanislaw, vice president of growth and development for AgriDigital in North America. “It has helped us connect with all the big names in Iowa agriculture. It has given us deep perspective on the state of affairs in agriculture, what’s coming next in the heartland of ag, and given us the most incredible team of allies in both the strategy and practice of growing a global business in Iowa and in the US.”
When looking for cohort candidates, Cultivo has a few criteria. First, the startup must have a proven track record in its home country. The program also looks for startups that are operating in some of Iowa’s key innovation areas like animal science, plant science, biomass, predictive agriculture, small- and medium-scale food processing, and advanced manufacturing.
The second virtual cohort of the Cultivo program will begin in the fall of 2021, with applications due August 2, 2021. The Corridor plans to add more social networking opportunities to the program to allow the startups to converse freely. Hunt also sees Cultivo as just the beginning for addressing international startups’ needs when it comes to entering the US market.
“The startup community both here and abroad are developing the innovations we need to sustainably meet a growing global population. As Iowans, we understand the nuances of bringing new innovative products to the market – we’ve been doing it for more than a century,” she says.
“It’s our responsibility to share our experiences and resources with others through programs like Cultivo to ensure a sustainable future for our planet.”