“AgWorks Demo Day” features panel discussion, pitches

AgWorksBy Tom Ballard, Chief Alliance Officer, PYA

On an unusually comfortable late August day, the Knoxville Entrepreneur Center (KEC) and AgLaunch brought the inaugural “Ag Works” accelerator to a conclusion with a panel discussion and brief pitches from the five participating start-ups.

The event was held Saturday on the stage at the north end of Market Square, one of several entry points to the city’s vibrant multi-block Farmers’ Market. The area is regularly populated by vendors selling their wares that include farm products and other items, and this Saturday was no exception.

“The Farmers’ Market is a good location for farmers to try out a product on people,” Charlotte Tolley, Executive Director of Nourish Knoxville, said. The weekly event is sponsored by her non-profit organization which she described as “a proven entrepreneurial incubator.”

Tolley shared the stage with two other panelists – Pete Nelson, Chairman and Chief Executive Officer (CEO) of Ag Innovation Group, and Maha Krishnamurthy, Assistant Vice President of Licensing for the University of Tennessee Research Foundation.

The importance of the “AgWorks” accelerator was underscored in separate comments by Nelson and Tolley. The former said that “we have a global problem of feeding people,” and the number of those who must be fed will double by 2050. “Innovation is the key,” Nelson declared.

At the same time, Tolley noted that “farmers are aging, but we’re seeing young people get back into farming.” They are, however, interested in different approaches than the older generation of farmers . . . holistic farming, direct-to-consumer models, and collaboration.

Krishnamurthy discussed various ways that the university and its Institute of Agriculture are helping develop technologies to address challenges farmers face such as invasive weeds, insects and diseases.

The panel was moderated by Chris Ayala, Managing Partner at Towanda Capital LLC, who served as lead instructor for the 12-week accelerator. Moderator of the entire event was Stephen Jenkins, KEC’s Director of Entrepreneurship.

Other than a connection in one way or the other to agriculture, the five start-ups participating in the program presented very different ideas.

  • Melissa Kreis-Stephens, Founder and CEO of Tomboy Organic Skincare Company, is a rural entrepreneur whose company formulates organic salves, skin care and make-up using herbs and roots derived from native deciduous forests. Since going full-time on the venture a few months ago, she told the attendees she has tripled sales including the biggest day ever when she logged 102 orders for about $6,000. (Click here for our recent biz post on her company.)
  • Alex Adams, a young serial entrepreneur we met several years ago, recalled that his grandfather grew tobacco and always complained about the issue of mold. His new venture, named GeoAir, uses drone technology to provide a faster, more precise way to identify mold in fields. “GeoAir is proactive while our competition is reactive,” he explained, adding that “we can find mold two to three weeks faster than the competition. (Click here for a profile on GeoAir.)
  • Michael Whitt grew-up on a farm in Grainger County, where he learned about the cattle buying business. “Buyers have 12 to 15 seconds to check out a cow before buying,” he says. How can you really understand the history about the investment you are about to make? “We want to make transfer of knowledge (about each cow) seamless.” The solution is the CattleSync app which Whitt equated to Carfax that used car buyers rely on to understand an automobile’s history of repairs.
  • Perhaps the most unusual of the pitches came from John Borden of Urban Valley Farms. He and his partner are developing a sustainable, economical, and high-quality source for protein. What is the source? Crickets. “The next food trend to hit the market is insects,” he said. (Click here to read our recent profile on the start-up.)
  • The final pitch came from Tony Bova, Co-Founder and CEO of Grow Bioplastics, a company that has raised several hundred thousand dollars through pitch competitions. It produces biodegradable plastic from lignin, a waste product. (Click here for the most recent update of the company.)

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