(EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the first article in a two-part series focused on Memphis-based AgLaunch and the non-profit organization’s rapidly evolving programming.)
By Tom Ballard, Chief Alliance Officer, PYA
You don’t have to be around Pete Nelson very long to feel his genuine passion for the agricultural sector and the farmers who are striving to make a living in the increasingly challenging arena.
For the energetic President and Executive Director of Memphis-based AgLaunch, the last year or so have seen some significant developments on a journey that he started when he planted his first research trial of kenaf as an alternative fiber crop for making automotive composites in 1997.
The most recent “win” for the non-profit organization was an award under the “Regional Innovation Strategies” program of the U.S. Economic Development Administration (EDA). The $750,000 in federal funding, announced in late July, will create AgLaunch i6, a farm-centric commercial validation program for agricultural-technology start-ups, as well as expand current AgLaunch365 programming and provide for additional capacity within the AgLaunch Farmer Network.
The award was announced just days after AgLaunch partnered with the Knoxville Entrepreneur Center to offer the third “AgLaunch Bootcamp.” The week-long (see our wrap-up article here) program featured four very different start-ups that underscore the rapidly evolving nature of what we used to know as the agriculture sector.
“Agriculture is not stagnant,” Nelson reminds us, adding that he believes the industry is at an inflection point. To not only survive but thrive, farmers and the communities in which they live must evolve by embracing new practices and new technologies, and that’s where AgLaunch is focused.
News about new grants, partnerships and programs are coming at a fast pace as the entrepreneurially minded Nelson pursues all avenues of opportunity.
The EDA announcement came on the heels of a five-year, $500,000 per year contract with the U.S. Small Business Administration (SBA) to establish and lead one of only 14 “Regional Innovation Cluster” programs (SBAAgriFoodInnovationClusterAnnouncement04.18.2019) across the U.S. and the only one focused on production agriculture. Announced in April, these complementary monies will be used for the “Mid-South Delta Agriculture Innovation Cluster,” the first SBA-funded cluster to be focused on agtech and value-chain companies that is centered around a major farming region.
“We’re building an actual transformative ecosystem,” Nelson says. “We’re making a best guess on where the industry is going and helping prepare farmers for the future.”
If that sounds like the famous Wayne Gretzky quote, it’s intentional. Nelson frequently talks about Ag 1.0 versus Ag 2.0 in describing the changes that are occurring in industry and the ways that he wants AgLaunch to help with the transformation.
Technologies like artificial intelligence (AI), data analytics, and robotics are impacting farmers as are the evolution in items like biopesticides, growth regulators, new crops and new cropping systems. All of these require a better understanding of their impact which is a major focus of AgLaunch.
The organization also spun-out of Memphis BioWorks about a year ago.
NEXT: A look at AgLaunch’s program areas.