Ag innovation opportunities, challenges explored in Murfreesboro session

TN Rural ChallengeBy Tom Ballard, Director of Innovation and Entrepreneurial Initiatives, Pershing Yoakley & Associates, P.C.

More than 60 people from across Tennessee turned out Tuesday for an all afternoon discussion in Murfreesboro on ways to bring to life one important component of “Governor Haslam’s Rural Challenge: A 10-Year Strategic Plan.”

The four-hour session, dubbed the “Tennessee AgriTech Challenge,” focused on Action 3.2, officially defined as developing strategies to “stimulate rural enterprise innovation across Tennessee.” It is one of 28 actions outlined in the comprehensive report.

Over the course of the afternoon, established companies, academic researchers, and entrepreneurs shared their ideas on what they are doing and what could be done to achieve the goal. One of the program participants was Bill Brown, Dean of Agricultural Research at the University of Tennessee (UT).

“There’s a buzz going on around entrepreneurship and moving technologies to market,” he said, noting that the Institute of Agriculture accounts for one-third to one-half of the invention disclosures made annually within the UT System.

Brown described several start-ups founded on UT agriculture technologies including Fertility Focus, TennEra, and Floodlight Genomics.

Whether it was an entrepreneur pitching a company – there were four – or an academic dean like Brown describing his institution’s programs, the message was consistent: Tennessee has a strong base on which to build a statewide agricultural innovation strategy.

In fact, it was noted that Tennessee is one of only four states currently focused on an agricultural innovation economy.

“The assets are here . . . we just need to collaborate and cooperate across the state” Louis Buck of the Tennessee Department of Agriculture noted in his remarks as the session concluded. His Department is charged with implementing the overall rural plan.

Buck used the term “quilting” to create a metaphor for how a statewide strategy of collaboration might unfold. His theme of cooperation was repeated several times over the afternoon as was another one – developing strategies to address inherent challenges.

In his keynote address, Ron Meeusen, Director of Cultivian Sandbox Ventures, cited money, geographic dispersion, and culture as key challenges.

“Most investors who have money don’t have expertise in this sector,” he observed. “We have to connect those with money with those who know.”

Meeusen also noted that venture capitalists from Silicon Valley are accustomed to looking at clusters. “We in food and agriculture are dispersed. Not only are the markets spread-out, but so, too, are the entrepreneurs.”

An innovation economy clearly relies of a robust entrepreneurial ecosystem.

“Entrepreneurs are the batteries in our communities,” said Steve Bares, President and Executive Director of Memphis Bioworks Foundation, a key organizer of the event. “It’s hard to be an entrepreneur in the agricultural space.”

While the final strategies for Action 3.2 are still being finalized, Bares gave the attendees a preview. He described the overall vision as being “a national leader in agricultural innovation and entrepreneurship, driving rural job creation and economic opportunities.”

In addition to Brown, other East Tennessee attendees included Larry Arrington, Chancellor of UT’s Institute of Agriculture; Grady Vanderhoofven of Meritus Ventures; Shawn Carson of Tech 2020; and Bem Culiat of NellOne Therapeutics.

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