Image credit: America's Cultivation Corridor

Open innovation is driving growth, opportunities for startups & leading companies alike

September 28, 2020

Innovation has always driven agriculture in Iowa. But a new focus on open innovation has sparked a revolution.

Leading companies are bringing new ideas to market faster than ever before thanks to collaborations with startups, students, farmers, university researchers, accelerator programs, and more.

Open innovation takes many forms, especially in America’s Cultivation Corridor where companies are tapping into the growing startup ecosystem and strong university system to network and seek out the next generation of ag technologies.

“Iowa provides a unique advantage,” said Billi Hunt, executive director, America’s Cultivation Corridor. “Nowhere else are there so many opportunities to collaborate with farmers, startups, researchers, and industry experts, as well as industry-leading companies.”

The traditional approach, where companies conduct all research and development activities internally, has waned in recent years as leaders see the potential to jumpstart internal efforts with groundbreaking ideas and fresh perspectives from outside their organizations.


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“Oftentimes smaller companies and entrepreneurs bring brand new ideas that had seemed too far ‘out there’ for a smaller organization or internal team,” said Chris Nelson, president and CEO of Kemin Industries. “For startups, collaborating with a global company like Kemin means they bring innovative ideas into a worldwide system with distribution capabilities that can bring a new product to the world within two to three years, instead of having to build their own infrastructure, regulatory, and distribution systems that could take 10 to 20 years.”

Kemin Industries is based in Des Moines, Iowa, but spans the globe with its portfolio of more than 500 specialty ingredients sold in more than 120 countries. This geographic reach allows for technologies to be more quickly introduced to farmers around the world to evaluate on their own operations.

“The ability Iowans have to provide an international impact, especially in the agricultural and food sectors, continues to be a real advantage. They see potential applications of technology and innovations around the world, not just in their backyard,” said Nelson.

Kemin has taken a multi-faceted approach to working with startups, from initial research investments or partnerships, to acquisitions. For a small Iowa business owner like Betty Garcia, co-owner of tortilla manufacturing company Tortilleria Sonora, partnering with Kemin and its Kemin Food Technology business unit helped improve her product and reach more consumers across the US Midwest.

For Muscatine, Iowa-based Kent Corporation, building strong connections with both the startup community and scientists and researchers at the state’s public universities is delivering results for customers and the company. Kent Corporation is a diversified, family-owned company with operating subsidiaries involved in corn wet milling, the production of animal feeds, and the manufacture of food, beverage, and pet products. The company opened its Kent Innovation Center at the Iowa State University (ISU) Research Park in 2018.

“The Innovation Center also provides a location for ISU students to continue their internship program when they return to campus,” said Jeff Underwood, vice president of enterprise innovation at Kent Corporation. “We’ve seen great success and a good retention rate of students who join the company after graduation.”

Proximity to ISU also means potential to collaborate with world-class researchers in animal science, food science, and human nutrition to identify new opportunities or to validate and test company products.

Iowa’s robust infrastructure of startup resources, university programs, and agriculture organizations is fertile ground for companies looking to make connections and engage in open innovation.

“Being located in a university and startup community brings an energy and fluid innovation which we are able to leverage to benefit our customers,” said Underwood.

Kent Corporation has been an active supporter and participant in the development of startup accelerator and mentorship programs like the Iowa Agritech Accelerator and those at ISU.

“The Accelerator is a terrific example of established companies like Kent, John Deere, Corteva Agriscience, and many more coming together to pool capital resources and mentorship expertise to enable startup companies to thrive in the Corridor,” said Underwood.

With more than 12,500 employees in Iowa, Deere & Company is one of the most well-known agricultural brands in the state and around the world. Since its founding in 1837, the company has continued to innovate with the development of equipment, and data and sustainability tools, for farmers.

“We have a passion to solve some of the most difficult challenges for farmers through technology,” said Lane Arthur, vice president of data, applications, and analytics at John Deere. “The problems that need to be solved in agriculture can’t be solved by one company. I am impressed with the passion and collaboration I see across the industry to tackle these challenges for farmers.”

John Deere recently launched the second class of its Startup Collaborator initiative where four startup companies complete a year-long program of mentorship and networking.

“We immerse them in what Deere is, what agriculture is and give them opportunities to spend time talking with customers and dealers,” said Arthur. “A lot of startups have really good ideas, but are limited in the opportunities to engage with customers to test their concepts.”

The MyJohnDeere API platform allows companies to offer their apps and services to growers and dealers using the MyJohnDeere portal via PCs, tablets, and smartphones. It provides companies a way to deliver their services to farmers without having to create the infrastructure themselves, as well as ensuring compatibility for farmers.

“There has never been a more exciting time to be involved in agriculture in Iowa,” said Hunt. “With collaborations happening between companies and organizations of all sizes, we are all benefiting with new products for farmers, new businesses in communities, and new job opportunities across the state.”

Visit America’s Cultivation Corridor to learn more about resources and opportunities in Iowa: cultivationcorridor.org

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