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Fostering Sustainability and Innovation in Agriculture

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Burgeoning Growth of Startup Accelerators a Boon to Sustainable Agriculture Entrepreneurs

October 19, 2012 |

When the Silicon Valley startup accelerator 500 Startups spawned farm production software company Farmeron late last year, sustainable agriculture officially joined the accelerator boom.  Accelerators typically take an equity stake in your startup in return for which you get a little bit of funding and, more importantly, to participate in an intensive three to six month mentoring program at the end of which you should ideally have a fundable business. They’re often confused with the now-less-hip incubators, which generally offer physical office space in addition to mentoring over a prolonged period. 

The roots of the accelerator movement are in the country’s universities; where the impetus to commercialize technologies came from a combination of researcher’s ambitions and university’s desire to demonstrate their value to communities as a whole. Private counterparts, mostly in the software space, began springing up in earnest around a decade ago – famed accelerator Y Combinator was founded in 2005 – and are now the dominant cohort.  There are around 1,200 accelerators running across the country, according to an advisor to the Department of Commerce.  This has led to widespread concern that there may actually be a bubble in accelerators.

The driving force in the industry right now is the move towards the ‘lean startup’, essentially creating and testing more products faster.  One example is the National Young Farmers Coalition’s FarmHack initiative, which brings teams together to brainstorm fixes for on-farm challenges and create tools in a couple of days.

Naturally, many of the functions of accelerators are now available on-line, for instance, SPIN-Farming offers online learning courses to get small farmers up and running. Video libraries at sites such as Fast Company’s 30 Second MBA and Gust offer the kind of practical help in an instant that used to only be available after hours of delving through a Rolodex.

The bulk of accelerators will accept participants who have little more than a business plan, but differ in the intensity, duration and contents of the program. For instance, software accelerator TechStars has participants move to one of its locations for a four month period, while others believe that entrepreneurs succeed best in their home environment.

When it comes to figuring out which accelerator is the best fit, some sustainable ag entrepreneurs have a plethora of choices, others very few. The largest crop is for those either planning to farm or make value added products. Farm incubators, such as Pennsylvania’s Start Farming have the longest track records in the space. Intervale Center’s Farms Program, for instance, “leases land, equipment, greenhouses, irrigation and storage facilities to small independent farms” and has been around since 1990. Demonstration farms (e.g. three year old Viva Farms) and spaces (e.g. FoodChain) are well established.  Shared commercial kitchen spaces, for example, Chefs Center of California in Pasadena are available in most cities, and an accelerator focused mostly on value added products, Local Food Labs, has recently announced its first class in Silicon Valley.

Things get trickier if you’re working in one of the newer areas of sustainable ag, such as, irrigation control, organic pesticides and herbicides, or farm management software. Certain generalist accelerators have begun to include agriculture startups. For instance, the Arkansas-based ARK Challenge – whose participants will be unveiling their progress on November 8 – have 3 sustainable ag startups in their first cohort of 15 companies. Elsewhere, UC Davis has recently received a substantial grant to establish a specialized sustainable ag accelerator, the Clean AgTech Innovation Center, and – given the university’s track record in the space and proximity to Silicon Valley – many have high expectations of it.

For most, the rationale for joining an accelerator program is “the network effect”, that is, the ability to befriend potential Advisory Board members, investors and customers through the program. Few generalist programs will have the quorum of sustainable ag relationships needed to achieve this goal, so smart sustainable ag entrepreneurs are instead seeking accelerators in other verticals, such as water, software and biotech, where they can pick up relationships with suppliers to the agriculture industry. The most prestigious of the accelerators are in software; names such as Y Combinator add immense luster to any startup’s investor pitch. Irrigation-related startups tend to gravitate towards Imagine H2O, a water business competition that boasts numerous multinationals as sponsors and which works with its finalists long after the competition ends.

Regardless of the complexity of choosing an accelerator, the burgeoning options for early stage startups can be nothing but a boon to the sustainable ag industry.  As one entrepreneur pointed out to me: “it’s nice to finally feel like we’re as cool as the software guys”.

Nicola Kerslake is a real assets investor, entrepreneur & advocate and maintains the blog, Real Assets Junkie.

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