By Tom Ballard, Chief Alliance Officer, PYA
The five collaborators that organized and supported the 2021 edition of the “AgLaunch Virtual Bootcamp” brought the curtain down on the program at an event on Tuesday night where most of the seven participating companies touched on a recurring theme – sustainability and protection of the environment through their technologies.
Hosted by Memphis-based AgLaunch and three East Tennessee entrepreneurial support organizations – Knoxville Entrepreneur Center (KEC), Sync Space (Kingsport) and The Biz Foundry (Cookeville), the three-week sprint included 15 hours of instruction on agricultural markets and the framework for organizing and communicating ideas.
About 70 people, including those representing the seven presenting companies, attended the session. Moderated by Margaret Oldham of AgLaunch, the session opened with comments from representatives of the collaborators, Tennessee Commissioner of Agriculture Charles Hatcher, and Mieka Sanderson of the Appalachian Regional Commission. After all seven pitches, Lilly Tench moderated the Q&A.
So, what did we learn about the seven companies? First, the presenters were passionate about their work, but that should not be a surprise. Second, their start-up ideas underscored how much of a role technology plays in agriculture these days and, more important, the sector’s future. Third, the participants had different levels of experience . . . from a newly minted Ph.D. to a more than two-decade veteran of the agricultural industry.
The seven came from different states and have also gained traction to varying levels with perhaps the most advanced being Hempitecture, one of the participants in the recently announced Cohort 5 of the “Innovation Crossroads” program operated by Oak Ridge National Laboratory. Tommy Gibbons, Chief Operating Officer, noted the seven-year old company is in the midst of a Wefunder crowdfunding campaign with a goal of $2.5 million. It is already oversubscribed at 130 percent.
Hempitecture is probably the longest established of the seven, having been in business for seven years. The company’s signature product is HempWool® insulation. “It is a direct one-on-one substitute for fiberglass insulation,” Gibbons said of the batt insulation product that is safer, easier to use, and has a lower embodied carbon footprint than conventional building products.
One of Hempitecture’s two Co-Founders, he is relocating to East Tennessee from the company’s headquarters in Ketchum, ID to participate in the two-year “Innovation Crossroads” program.
Besides Gibbons’ company, here are summaries on the other six.
Agreed, pitched by Reed Walker, is focused on accelerating the transition to regenerative agriculture by taking the experimentation out of optimization through gamified digital twins. “Regenerative agriculture’s time is now,” he told attendees, adding that ag contributes more than 25 percent of the global gas emissions. “The two barriers to adoption (of regenerative agriculture) are informational and attitudinal.” To overcome those challenges, Agreed is building a data decision support tool. The company has three Co-Founders – Walker and two based in the United Kingdom, so that is where the company will most likely launch the commercial product at the outset. He added that Agreed just secured a $140,000 pre-seed investment from Carbon13.
Agriwater Corp, founded by Bianca Bailey, is addressing environmental sustainability for farmers by monetizing off-grid wastewater treatment and pollution control. She’s the individual who recently earned her doctorate at the University of Illinois. Explaining that 500 million tons of manure waste is produced annually on farms, Bailey has developed an electrolysis system to process the waste onsite so that it does not contribute to environmental problems. She has a small prototype but is pursuing Small Business Innovation Research grants to fund a larger version.
GrowinLocal is a start-up from Barry Delcambre that is a platform empowering and enabling users from all socio-economic backgrounds to grow, purchase and exchange locally grown produce, meats and house-hold necessities in a hyper local virtual marketplace. Noting the popularity of farmers’ markets, Delcambre said he wants to create virtual farmers’ markets with the first two in Austin, TX and Jackson, MS. If everything goes as he plans, Delcambre says the next two locations could be Dallas, TX, and Knoxville. He has a minimum viable product and a small investment from Innovate Mississippi.
Jiarui Li presented Innatrix that is developing eco-friendly biological products to control critical crop diseases, using a patented protein evolution platform. The North Carolina resident said the company had secured more than $2 million in funding from investors like the North Carolina Biotechnology Center and is finishing a proof of concept for its first product focused on potato late blight.
Open Agriculture Systems & Integrated Supply, Oasis for short, was pitched by Mike Lee as an accessible, open-source platform for precision agriculture and industrial automation. He’s the Co-Founder of the Pennsylvania-based company that he started about 18 months ago with a mushroom farm in the basement of his home. Today, Lee said he has six operational systems and is planning a crowdfunding campaign later this year.
Michael Cully, the two-decade plus veteran of the agriculture sector, founded Susterre that is pioneering the use of ultra-high pressure fluid jet technology for row crop planting and seeding applications. The start-up’s technology promotes the adoption of no-till farming and cover crops, lowering the cost of farming while improving soil quality and preserving the earth’s natural resources. Cully says the company has patents pending on its technology and just received a term sheet from a lead investor for its $2.5 million seed round.