“I never would have predicted 10 years ago that I would be working in ag today, but it’s been amazing,” John Hartnett, founder and chief executive of SVG Partners tells AgFunderNews. “In other sectors it usually feels like pushing up hill, but ag has been like pushing down hill.”
Hartnett, a senior technology executive with previous roles including CEO of G24 Innovations, a solar company, and independent non-executive director to the board of Aer Lingus, first became involved in agriculture four years ago when he was approached by the then Mayor of Salinas, Dennis Donohue.
Donohue wanted to try and help bring innovation to the state’s agriculture sector and establish ties with neighboring Silicon Valley. Despite the close proximity of arguably the world’s biggest tech hub to America’s fresh food capital, the ag community in Salinas had very little interaction with the world of tech, according to Hartnett.
“That’s not to say there wasn’t appetite for innovation on farms, but the agri community just wasn’t plugged into Silicon Valley, despite being on its doorstep in Salinas,” he says.
Responsible for founding the Irish Technology Leadership Group, a network focused on fostering links between Ireland and Silicon Valley, Hartnett was an obvious choice for Donohue.
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So Hartnett, through his newly-founded SVG Partners, and Donohue established the Steinbeck Innovation Foundation, to provide four pillars of development support to agriculture entrepreneurs in Salinas Valley: education, including entrepreneurial training; startup acceleration; investment, through SVG’s funds; and mentoring from local ag- or tech-related corporate partners.
Steinbeck Innovation Clusters are tasked with providing training for entrepreneurs and the foundation established an accelerator called the Steinbeck Innovation FastTrac NewVenture Program, led by SVG Partners and supported by funding from the City of Salinas.
Hartnett also went on to create the Thrive Accelerator in association with farmers association Western Growers (WGA), tech giant Verizon and Forbes, the business magazine (SVG and Steinbeck later co-hosted Forbes’ Reinventing America: the Agtech Summit in July this year, which was by all accounts a great success).
Other corporates that Hartnett involved in the Steinbeck initiative include Chiquitas, Driscoll and IBM. But SVG’s partnership with WGA really stands out, he says.
“I have to say, for a 90-year-old organisation of 2,500 farmers, WGA is phenomenal and it was a delight to form a partnership with them,” says Hartnett. “Our partnership has really given us the domain expertise to understand the challenges of the industry and on the Thrive accelerator program, the expertise to find the best agtech start ups.”
SVG Partners is now nearing the first close of SVG Growth Fund 2, which is targeting $100 million overall, and will focus on investing into food and agtech. Fund II has strategic commitments from WGA, Taylor Farms and the Smith Group and follows Fund I, a more general tech and IT-focused VC fund. WGA’s involvement in Fund 2 is key to its success, says Hartnett.
“The association’s investment in SVG Growth Fund 2 and skin in the game, binds us together so we are working on the same side of the table, and their input on evaluating and selecting companies has been invaluable,” he says. SVG will also keep a close eye on developments at WGA’s innovation and technology center, which hopes to incubate food and agtech startups when it opens later this year.
Fund 2 will have a clear precision agriculture focus and not invest into anything biology related; it’s really where “ag meets tech”, says Hartnett. Food-related technologies will also be included, as it’s hard to separate agriculture from food, particularly today as consumers increasingly focus on the source of their food, says Hartnett.
“The power of the consumer has been thrown back into the value chain. With smart phones and the power of the computer, millennials can see and have information on everything and they are, or soon will be, demanding to know what they’re eating and where it came from.”
If the last four years are anything to go by, we should expect some more exciting developments from Hartnett and SVG to come. Watch this space!
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