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AgLaunch, KEC partner on one of the five new SBA-funded “Regional Innovation Clusters”

By Tom Ballard, Chief Alliance Officer, PYA

A recently launched subsidiary of AgLaunch Initiative is one of five new “Regional Innovation Clusters” (RICs) announced by the U.S. Small Business Administration (SBA), and the new funding will build on the existing, five-year partnership between the Memphis-based non-profit organization and the Knoxville Entrepreneur Center (KEC).

Specifically, the new effort will be focused on commercializing technology from the region’s labs and universities, scaling local food systems, and creating equitable opportunities to address rural poverty.

AgLaunch Engine LLC, a wholly-owned for-profit subsidiary of AgLaunch Initiative, has been awarded a five-year contract for $1.5 million and will use the first-year funding of $300,000 to launch the “Southern Appalachian AgriFood Innovation Cluster” including mobilizing a steering team, building communications tools, and starting to rollout key programs. The goal will be to leverage the unique farm-centric innovation model already being implemented in the Mississippi Delta region, while accelerating opportunities in Appalachia in the food and agriculture sector.

The latest award is also the second RIC that has been awarded to AgLaunch or an AgLaunch subsidiary, following the February 2020 announcement of the “Mid-South Delta Agriculture Innovation Cluster.”

Pete Nelson

For Pete Nelson and the team at AgLaunch, it represents the latest successful effort in a multi-state program focused on helping agriculture interests succeed in an increasingly complex and innovative ecosystem. For example, we noted in a recent post that AgLaunch was one of nine Tennessee-based organizations that submitted proposals under the “Build Back Better Regional Challenge” administered by the U.S. Economic Development Administration.

“This is a unique opportunity for us to tie what we have been doing in the Delta region and beyond to have a much broader impact,” said Nelson, Executive Director of AgLaunch. “Tennessee has become the connecting point to two high poverty, high opportunities regions to learn, exchange, and grow opportunities that work by investing in the farmers, entrepreneurs and thought leaders already championing the work.”

AgLaunch wrote in its proposal that “the key learnings, deal flow, funding mechanisms, processes and technology developed in the Mid-South Delta region and with partners across the U.S. will be leveraged by AgLaunch Engine LLC to create a distributed, rural-focused commercialization network that appropriately connects with leadership across the Southern Appalachian region.”

For Jim Biggs and the KEC team, it is another opportunity to partner with AgLaunch beyond the annual “AgLaunch Bootcamp” offered each summer.

Jim Biggs

“Over the past five years, through our annual bootcamps and AgTech Mentor Network, KEC and AgLaunch have built a great working relationship,” Biggs said. “We are excited for the opportunity to expand on those efforts, working with new and existing partners to bring AgLaunch’s farmer-centric approach to agricultural innovation to a broader swath of Appalachia.”

In making the announcement of AgLaunch and the four other newest recipients, SBA said the selections were made by its Office of Entrepreneurial Development “based on the applicant’s proven ability to deliver the most extended support to small business entrepreneurs in the pharmaceutical and biosciences, agriculture technology as well as retail, supply chain/logistics, and food processing industries.” The funding can be used to pay for events, conferences, booths, webinars, salaries, and operating costs.

Based at KEC, the “Southern Appalachian AgriFood Innovation Cluster” will be focused on 240 counties located in the Southern U.S. Collectively, they comprise about 60 percent of the 420 counties in the Appalachian Regional Commission’s footprint across 13 states. The new Cluster will encompass counties in seven of those states – Alabama, Georgia, Kentucky, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, and Virginia.

According to the proposal submitted to SBA, the Cluster will focus on leveraging existing programs into the unique context of the Appalachian region in the following areas: (1) specialty crops including new grains for beverage and food markets; (2) regenerative and organic agriculture and carbon markets; (3) new uses for forestry products; (4) pasture raised cattle; (5) local value-added products; (6) farm-to-market with novel technologies; and (7) bioenergy.

As part of its plan, the Cluster will leverage a network of regional organizations that support state level planning, implementation, and a strong regional alliance. Each is represented on the overall Steering Committee as follows:

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