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Why Indiana is becoming a leader in agbioscience innovation

September 10, 2019

When people think of startups in the life sciences and biotech space, images of Silicon Valley often appear in their minds. But as entrepreneurs increasingly face challenges in building a company in the pricey and overcrowded West Coast region, they’re starting to consider putting down roots elsewhere.

For AgriNovus Indiana, there’s no better place to cultivate an agbioscience ecosystem than America’s heartland, especially as the region already presents the perfect convergence of three key ingredients: agriculture, biology, and science/tech.

“There are a lot of different labels, names, or definitions out there for this space, including everything from agtech to foodtech, to agritech. We made our own — agbioscience — because it fits the competitive clusters and economic sectors that already exist here in Indiana,” Beth Bechdol, president and CEO of AgriNovus Indiana, told AFN. “Life sciences, advanced manufacturing, and logistics, along with the emerging technologies that disrupt these industries, are also part of Indiana’s core economy. Throw in a growing tech ecosystem in the Indianapolis area and throughout the state, and the blend of these economic engines together is where the magic happens.”

What is agbioscience?

  • Think of it as an equation – Ag+Bio+Science. It’s where food, agriculture, science and technology converge
  • This plays to Indiana’s existing strengths
    1. Top 10 agriculture producing state in the U.S. (according to USDA)
    2. #2 Leading state in the U.S. for life sciences exports
    3. #2 in U.S. for advanced industries
    4. Tech jobs growing at more than double the U.S. average

Who is AgriNovus?

AgriNovus is an Indiana state initiative dedicated to promoting and accelerating the growth of the agbioscience community in the region. It’s part of the Central Indiana Corporate Partnership (CICP), which is an effort dedicated to the region’s continued growth. The chief innovation officer for the Indiana Economic Development Corporation (IEDC) also serves as an AgriNovus board member.

As part of its founding guidelines and mission statement, AgriNovus focuses on cultivating relationships and innovation among industry players including executives of other industries, innovators, and other industry professionals as opposed to operating as a consumer-facing entity.

Several prominent universities with robust agriculture and science departments in Indiana help further bolster the region’s powerhouse potential. Purdue Agriculture, Indiana University’s School of Informatics, Computing & Engineering, Kelley School of Business, and Notre Dame are a few noteworthy mentions. Then there’s Rose Hulman Institute of Technology, which has been considered the top undergraduate engineering program for the last two decades.

“It’s incredible how much interest there is from the faculty members and department heads of these colleges and universities when it comes to recruiting, career fairs, and intern placement. It’s not about building new ag majors or curricula at these schools. They already have incredible reputations and top talent in many disciplines that agbioscience firms need more than ever today,” Bechdol explains.

Big players in the agbioscience arena have already taken note of AgriNovus’ efforts in the region. Forbes selected Indiana for the first Forbes AgTech Summit outside of Salinas, California, where it has run for several years. And AgriNovus is hosting the Agbiosicence Innovation Summit presented by agribusiness giants Corteva Agriscience and Elanco in November 2019.

The organization also partnered with SVG Ventures and ForbesLIVE to launch the THRIVE Midwest Challenge. That’s an accelerator program culminating in a pitch day competition for startups working on innovations for ag biotech, livestock, and row crop producers.

But for Bechdol, it’s not a matter of competing with Silicon Valley or other emerging agrifood tech epicenters like the Donald Danforth Plant Science Center in St. Louis, Kansas City’s KC Animal Health Corridor, or Research Triangle Park in North Carolina.

“Why can’t the Midwest and Silicon Valley or some of these other places for that matter bridge their assets? They’re very different assets. Some are emerging to be complementary in the tech space, but when you think about access to really unique talent the Midwest is a frontrunner,” Bechdol explains. “The magic comes when we combine each regions’ power.”

The IEDC, charged with leading Indiana’s efforts to attract and retain business, is excited about the potential for agbioscience to help the state achieve many of its key objectives.

Indiana is home to 15 million acres of farmland and over 56,000 farms, according to USDA data. Corn is the primary commodity with soybeans following closely behind. It’s ranked as the fifth-largest corn-producing state and the fourth largest soybean-producing state in the country. It claims second in poultry and egg production and third in tomato production. Hay products and wheat are other notable industries, as well as a sizeable beef and dairy contingent. Beyond these traditional crops, Indiana also has significant production of diverse crops and products such as ducks, popcorn, turkeys, processing tomatoes, mint, and cantaloupe.

“Our job is to make sure Indiana has a growing, diversified economy that continues to create good jobs. We can do that by attracting new businesses or helping Indiana businesses here expand their footprint,” Elaine Bedel, president of the IEDC, tells AFN. “All of those are already happening in our ag space. The industry has almost a $32 billion impact on our state’s economy, and half of that comes from the agbiosciences.”

Interested in learning more about AgriNovus?

If you build an agbioscience playing field, the startups will come

Several prominent startups have also decided to set up shop in Indiana through satellite offices or other capacities, including seed traits biotech company Inari, Brazilian farm data platform (and AgFunder portfolio company) Solinftec, and Italpollina.

“It’s an obvious choice for us. We are serious about making a product for farmers and selling it through independent seed companies. We have to be in the right market for that, and the farmers are in the Midwest,” Inari CEO Ponsi Trivisvavet told AFN. “Also, we are able to get a lot of great talent, including the great support we’ve gotten from Purdue.”

Trivisvavet also finds value in the region’s ecosystem, benefiting from other industry professionals every time she visits the company’s Indiana office.

“For me, I believe that the solution cannot be solved by us alone. The most critical thing in this world is solving the food system. It’s got to be a combination of everyone,” she adds.

Last year, Brazilian digital agriculture company Solinftec decided to establish its US headquarters near Purdue University with the goal of bringing more than 400 jobs to the region by 2022 and $50.6 million in investment. It has also worked with leading Indiana farmer Kip Tom, trialing its technology at Tom Farms.

“We’re extremely happy with Indiana farmers and the whole community, the governor, the state lawmakers. They have been very supportive. I am pretty amazed at how much support we’ve had from Purdue. Not only in terms of hiring but also exposing us to all sorts of clients and players around the US,” said Rodrigo lafelice, the new CEO of Solifntec. “Beth [Bechdol] has been incredible; I’m in love with that lady!”

Organic fertilizer, biostimulant, and microbe-focused startup Itapollina has also crossed the pond to sow roots in Indiana.

“We are optimistic about our future in Indiana. The biostimulant industry is still in a nascent stage with a tremendous outlook,” Luca Bonini, company CEO and founder, told AFN. “We have been fortunate to experience product success as a global pioneer of the segment, and the North America market has been receptive to our technologies, as well. Italpollina has more exciting innovation on the horizon. Our location in Indiana, which is bursting with high tech ag companies, bio-ag research resources, and skilled talent, makes it a great place to pursue continued development.”

Quality of Life

Beyond the burgeoning agbioscience ecosystem, the state has a quality-of-life appeal too. Indiana is a great option for industry professionals who want careers on the bleeding edge of their industry but might be reluctant to leave their Midwest roots behind. And even Itapollina’s Bonini and his family have decided to call Indiana home, where they enjoy the school system, the low cost of living, and abundant activities in the region.

“I think this next generation of rural students has a much stronger desire than maybe Gen X or even millennials to stay close to home, but they need the opportunities,” Bechdol explains. “I still live in my hometown. I believe in the power and potential of rural communities. Some of our agbioscience stakeholders are not in ‘expected’ places like West Lafayette or Indianapolis. They’re scattered across the whole state in communities like Milford and Albion — places that aren’t even always well known to other Hoosiers.”

And as IEDC’s Bedel points out, running a business in Silicon Valley comes with a hefty price tag that many startups simply can’t afford during their bootstrap years.

Like Rome, ecosystems aren’t built in a day — unless you’re a Hoosier 

Building an ecosystem and forging connections among so many groups is not without its challenges. Proximity to farmers, for example, doesn’t automatically equate participation.

“That’s a really big priority for AgriNovus Indiana. We have the support and engagement from the leadership of our major ag commodity organizations. The president and CEOs of Indiana Farm Bureau, the corn and soybean associations, and Indiana Pork are investors and/or board members of AgriNovus,” Bechdol explains. “I have a farm family background myself. It’s important to me that AgriNovus isn’t seen as just supporting corporate innovation, but that we are really sector-wide, bringing together producers, industry, research institutions and state leadership.”

Rallying farmers will be an ongoing effort. AgriNovus is brainstorming farmer-centric events like statewide convenings with farmers and entrepreneurs to build a dialogue between the two groups, a significant challenge for many agrifood tech startups. A simple conversation between an entrepreneur and a farmer – the ultimate end-user of the product – could be invaluable before the innovation is brainstormed, ideated, funded, and advanced, Bechdol points out.

“In this current environment, with prices, weather, and trade policy challenges, farmers don’t have the additional disposable income to invest in the latest cool, sexy technology blindly. They are looking for very intentional, very buttoned up, and elegant solutions to some seemingly boring but very standard and challenging operational problems,” she elaborates.

But Bechdol is already prepared to invest the time it will take to cultivate the dream of AgriNovus. Time is her biggest challenge as she works to connect stakeholders and navigate funding resources. She often reminds herself that sometimes it takes inspiring just one person at a time to create momentum.

Fortunately, Hoosiers don’t seem to need much convincing.

“When we tell this ‘ag plus bio plus science and tech’ story, and we talk about the sector and the companies that are here — whether it is the CEO of a company like Lilly or Cummins, the Governor’s Office, or even a high school student and her guidance counselor — everyone gets it. I keep waiting for someone to tell me we’re wrong about the opportunity or to shrug me off. But the buy-in that we have built in the last few years shows us that people want us, and the community we are creating to be here. That’s what fires me up every single morning.”

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