For a specialty crop grower, selecting the next season’s seeds is a big deal. Most market gardeners and other enterprise-level operators receive a massive stack of seed catalogs each year. They pour over them meticulously, dogearing page after page bearing promising seed varieties. To give a sense of these tomes, one catalog offers over 5,000 varieties of tomatoes alone. Even the backyard gardener both delights and dismays at the weighty task of narrowing it down to a few choices. And once a grower has locked in her seed order, the fate of the upcoming season is set in stone.
“It’s kind of incredible there hasn’t been the disruption we are proposing. The industry is still operating on an individual company seed catalog model that dates back to the 1800s,” Dylan Bruce, co-founder and business development lead of Midwest-based Seedlinked, told AFN. “There’s a love to flipping through seed catalogs and as growers, we develop loyalty to some brands, but we want to bring all these supply chain stakeholders together on a collaborative crowdsourced trialing platform.”
Seedlinked recently announced a $500,000 seed investment from Titletown Tech with participation from an angel investor. The startup is hoping to revolutionize specialty seed development and distribution while improving feedback loops between developers and growers. The platform adds what the startup sees as a much-needed dose of transparency in an otherwise antiquated specialty seed market.
Startup speed dating turned investment
Bruce grew up on a Midwest farm that offered one of the first CSA programs in the local area and operates a market garden of his own. Although the team struggled at first to explain the yesteryear nature of the specialty seed market’s pain points, an immediate synergy emerged when they sat down with Titletown during an investor/startup speed dating event taking place at a competition they attended in November 2019. As newcomers to the capital raising rodeo, they were pleasantly surprised at how down to earth Titletown was and the collegiality involved in closing the deal.
The multi-sited service begins with providing product development support to seed companies. Plant breeders can spend around eight years developing a seed variety at a research station only to find that the seed is a flop for certain segments of the country. The USDA’s Planting Zone Map divides the country into different regions based on weather patterns and other key factors for optimal cultivation. What works well in Zone 2 may not work well in Zone 6, for example.
To date, however, the link between seed developers and their ultimate end-users, growers, has been non-existent. Any current efforts at data collection regarding seed performance are largely pencil-and-paper based practices that have serious lag times, Bruce explains. Seedlinked is aiming to not only improve the R&D phase of seed development but to accelerate the timeline by getting growers involved from inception onward.
“By involving growers in the breeding and trialing process, we can shorten the product development cycle while also improving adoption rates. Including growers helps to ensure that the requirements for adoption are being accounted for in the development process by carrying out trials in end-users’ gardens. The current model of testing at research stations means the results may not correlate with what the growers will see on their farms.”
Another aspect of the platform allows growers to provide anonymous feedback about different varieties and to see what other growers have said about a particular seed in real-time. This will help take out some of the guesswork that growers have to contend with each year when wondering if a new or previously unused variety will work well in their particular zone.
To date, Seedlinked has been funded through non-dilutive public grant opportunities. The cash influx has been great, but some of the funding conditions involve a prohibition against using the money to commercialize or market the technology. Seedlinked has another $1 million worth of grant applications pending and will use the new capital for commercialization.
Seedlinked’s effort to streamline and unify the industry has an altruistic aim, but some may see it as a bit too much disruption. Some seed companies have deep roots and have cultivated strong user loyalty. The new influx of data from other growers could chip away at some of these foundations and create a new bout of competition among seed companies who can’t simply rely on reputation anymore.
A similar shakeup is happening in the chemical inputs world where Farmers Business Network and other startups are taking some of the mystery and siloing out of the chemical inputs market. Through the FBN Procurement platform, members will be able to purchase directly from input manufacturers. FBN will help farmers identify where they may be overpaying for their chemical inputs while also negotiating prices with dealers to meet a member’s specific needs. The platform touts a 15 percent to 40 percent saving on popular chemicals and offers a ‘best price guarantee.’
The story of the seed
Naturally, some chemical companies and the retailers who sell their products to farmers weren’t entirely thrilled with the sudden influx of transparency and new grower autonomy.
“Some seed companies are worried about losing customers because right now they have a lot of control. Few seed companies even have a review functionality on their websites. We are sometimes faced with the criticism that it will pit seed companies against each other. We don’t believe that. We are setting up the platform in a way that seed companies can tell their story and create a relationship with a grower,” Bruce explains. “We are just pitting different seed varieties against each other and weeding out what isn’t working.”
For the seed companies already participating in the beta version of the platform, Bruce reports a high level of satisfaction with the ability to incorporate grower input during the trialing phase of seed development. Although it may ultimately impact their pipeline, the business intelligence that the platform offers allows the companies to be more nimble and better manage inventory, one of the biggest craws in the seed industry’s side.
“There have been a few marketplaces in the past that have tried to scrape data from all the seed company websites and list varieties but they don’t really have anything to offer the seed company in return like we do. Plus, seed companies are starting to understand that this is an inevitability.”