Ag Accelerators: Revving Up Innovation
Farmers turn to agtech accelerators to help launch startups.
By Jodie Helmer | Photos By Tom McKenzie and Brent Stammen
Growing up on a farm in Caro, Mich., Jesse Vollmar noticed that tech was transforming other industries, but life on the farm remained labor-intensive and low-tech.
Although his parents, who grow organic row crops like black beans and blue corn for retail giants like Chipotle, had broadband Internet and smartphones, records on their 1,200-acre farm were still kept with what he calls “cumbersome spreadsheets.
“There was a widening gap between what was possible and what was being applied on the farm,” Vollmar explains.
The farm kid saw an opportunity and turned tech entrepreneur. His goal: to create a high-tech solution to make crop management easier for row crop farmers like his parents. The result: In 2012, Vollmar launched FarmLogs to help, he says, “farmers digitally manage their farms and to leverage data from their fields to improve their operations.”
The company, according to Vollmar, has developed new technology, including web and mobile field monitoring software that notifies farmers when yield threats are detected. FarmLogs also automatically records field activities and provides instant access to field-specific rainfall data, soil maps, yield maps and growth stage estimation.
Seeking Advice, Finding Funding
While inspiration for the startup was rooted in his farm experience, Vollmar knew he needed funding, advice and connections for FarmLogs to grow into a thriving startup. Along with business partner Brad Koch, Vollmar applied to Y Combinator, a prestigious startup accelerator in Mountain View, Calif., to help launch FarmLogs.
For four months, the pair lived and worked in California, devoting 24/7 to developing the software and preparing to roll it out to farmers and investors. As part of the program, FarmLogs received $20,000 in startup capital and access to mentors who offered advice on all aspects of business development. It was the first ag tech startup accepted into the accelerator.
Since graduating from Y Combinator, FarmLogs has, according to Vollmar, raised $15 million in capital and captured about one-third of the market among row crop farmers with 100-plus acres in production. “We started [FarmLogs] before ag tech was a trend,” Vollmar notes. “No one could have even conceived of this five years ago, and now we’re growing at a pace that’s mind-blowing.”
On the Fast Track
Startup accelerators are, as their name suggests, designed to help startups accelerate their development. Most offer office space, seed capital and access to mentors and investors to help entrepreneurs turn ideas into profitable businesses. In exchange, entrepreneurs give the accelerator equity in their startups.
The number of accelerators—which are different from incubators that help companies at an earlier stage in their development—has grown from a handful a decade ago to 235 programs worldwide, according to Seed-DB, an online database that tracks such programs. The group estimates that more than 4,800 startups have participated in accelerators, raising over $12 billion in funding.
As the concept becomes more popular, a number of ag tech-specific accelerators have sprouted up to support startups working on agricultural innovations, including Missouri-based Yield Lab and a Canadian accelerator called Agri-Food Venture Acceleration Program. Even Google is taking notice, launching Farm 2050 to provide startups with capital, design, manufacturing and testing resources to pioneer new technologies for farmers.
In July, Thrive, an ag tech accelerator in Salinas, Calif., launched an eight-week program to provide support, mentoring and up to $5 million in investments for ag tech entrepreneurs. Through the program, entrepreneurs have access to mentors from some of the top agricultural companies in the nation, including Chiquita, Dole, Mann Packing and Taylor Farms.
“Silicon Valley is the center for innovation in the world,” explains John Hartnett, tech investor and founder of Thrive Accelerator. “We knew there was a need to create an ecosystem that brought farmers and entrepreneurs together with investors and companies looking for innovation.”
In 2015, Yield Lab provided $100,000 in seed funding to six ag tech startups that went on to raise more than $7 million from investors at the end of the nine-month program. During the program, entrepreneurs had access to free office space, one on-one mentoring, an ag-specific business curriculum and networking opportunities.
“These entrepreneurs could go out looking for partners and customers, and spend a lot of time figuring out how to approach and how to get their foot in the door or benefit from the resources we can offer,” notes program manager Matt Plummer.
Participating in GrowLab (now HIGHLINE), a Vancouver-based accelerator, was crucial to the success of Farm At Hand, a farm management app that allows farmers to track field records, contracts, deliveries and equipment maintenance from their smartphones. “[The accelerator] got us to the tech center of Canada to get advice from successful mentors that we wouldn’t have access to otherwise,” co-founder Kim Keller explains. “We wouldn’t be where we are without it.”
The three-month program gave Keller the tools she needed to transition from farmer to entrepreneur—a role she never expected to fill. Keller was helping out on her family’s 12,000-acre grain and oilseed farm in Gronlid, Saskatchewan, and working for the provincial government. It was then, in 2011, a friend introduced her to Himanshu Singh, the owner of a local software development company.
Singh was shocked to learn that the Kellers used a large sheet of paper to track the quantities in their bins, running into the house to erase and rewrite numbers each time grain was added or removed. He suggested building an app to manage the bin yards.
In 2012, the pair uploaded the app to the iTunes store so friends could download it for their farms.
A year after the app launched, Keller applied to the accelerator. “We’d been going to trade shows and used social media to raise awareness, and we were growing at a steady pace, but we knew we needed capital and mentorship to grow,” she explains.
Since completing the accelerator, Farm At Hand has raised $1.4 million in funding and exceeded 23,000 downloads. The team also expanded the app to include data on field activities like spraying
Currently, the app is free for farmers. Keller and Singh, however, are working on rolling out an additional paid version for agribusiness, which is slated for release later this year. “We’re not just selling a farm management app, we’re building a platform for the entire industry to work with,” she explains.
The Future of Farming
These days, Keller travels back and forth between British Columbia and Saskatchewan, transitioning from entrepreneur to farmer to help her parents. While she’s driving the grain cart and running seed, Keller experiences the value of her app firsthand.
For instance, before the app, information about which fields were planted with Roundup Ready and Invigor canola was recorded on paper in their kitchen. In the fields, they relied on guesswork (instead of making the long trek back to the house) about which fields could be sprayed with which herbicide.
“Now that we have the information on our phones, we make a lot fewer mistakes,” she says. “Without it, we could have ruined entire crops.”
In Michigan, Vollmar has experienced similar insights about the power of ag tech on the farm. “We are giving farmers the ability to remove a lot of manual labor and improve their yields,” he explains. “We have the opportunity to build a business that is massively impactful on agriculture.
“Our goal is to be the company that invents the future of farming.”