Innovation has always been at the heart of agriculture in Iowa, with many ideas and inventions getting their start on the farm. Farmers are well-known for developing their own fixes to make equipment run more smoothly, or building their own solutions to address a challenge. Sometimes those ideas are small improvements that benefit one farm, while others have grown into some of the largest and most recognized brands in agriculture, including John Deere, Sukup, and Renewable Energy Group (REG).
Increasingly, Iowa farmers and the organizations that represent them are taking the next step to invest in the startups and new technologies that will deliver the next generation of innovation.
“Iowa farmers know that innovation is at the center of their success now and in the future and are willing to step up to partner in research, development, testing, and investing in companies that represent the future of agriculture,” said Billi Hunt, executive director of America’s Cultivation Corridor.
Through their checkoff investment in the Iowa Corn Promotion Board, farmers are investing in both research to develop new uses of corn, as well as startup companies that are bringing new ideas and technologies to agriculture.
Iowa Corn Opportunities, LLC (ICO) is an equity investment fund which was established by the Iowa Corn Growers Association in 2008 to make profitable, strategic, value-added investments that will facilitate new business development opportunities and benefit Iowa’s corn growers.
The concept has grown and evolved gradually, as startup companies initially approached the association and board members for input on how new products or technologies would impact farmers, said Brian Jones, chief operating officer at ICO.
“Having a farmer perspective on what might work and bring benefit to real world agriculture is very valuable,” he said. “Farmers provide input and due diligence on what really makes sense, especially in an environment where a lot of potential investors don’t have first-person understanding of agriculture and what farmers need. We’ve been successful putting investment capital to work to represent the voices of farmers.”
To date, ICO has invested in 14 companies and funds, including Iowa-based PowerPollen, FarmlandFinder, Next Level Ventures and Midwest Growth Partners. ICO is managed by an independent board which includes farmers and non-farmer industry experts, with oversight from the Iowa Corn Growers Association board.
“These are not forgivable loans or grants; we are investing in equity and expect a return,” Jones said. “The fund is unique in that we are 100% owned by the association, but we utilize our strong board, consultants, and outside experts to broaden our base and professionalism. It has been effective, and farmers appreciate the outside perspective.”
Iowa corn growers are also investing in early-stage research that could lead to new markets or uses for corn and other crops grown in the state.
“We invest funds into research, identifying specific market opportunities. We’re ultimately looking for new technologies or opportunities that will improve the profitability and sustainability for Iowa’s corn farmers,” said Rodney Williamson, director of research and development at the Iowa Corn Promotion Board.
The investment strategy is a way to de-risk early stage research, develop a proof of concept, file initial patent applications, and license technologies for further development. Research is underway in a number of areas, including bioplastics, renewable fuels, improved genetic traits, and improved sustainability.
“We identify market opportunities and then look for research entities — universities, private companies, contract laboratories, or others — who can conduct early-stage development work. Growers are involved at every step of the process, providing feedback on what are key priorities,” Williamson said.
Iowa’s unique combination of a strong entrepreneurial ecosystem, leading research institutions, and forward-thinking farmers provide an advantage to companies developing the next generation of agricultural solutions.
“The only way we can address the dual challenges of feeding a growing world and preserving our soil, water, and other natural resources is to adopt new approaches and technologies,” Hunt said.
“Getting farmers involved at every step of that development is key, and there is no better place to connect with leading edge crop and livestock farmers than Iowa.”