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November 21, 2019 | Tom Ballard

PART 2: AgLaunch poised to help transform the Volunteer State, contiguous region

(EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the last 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

The headline that stood out for me on the webpage of AgLaunch simply said this: “Agriculture Needs a Revolution.”

Having recently secured two large federal grants, gained its own independence and board of directors, and executed a Memorandum of Understanding with the Tennessee Department of Agriculture, the Memphis-based non-profit is poised to play a major role in such a transformation in the Volunteer State and the contiguous region.

It’s a role that Pete Nelson, AgLaunch’s energetic President and Executive Director, has been cultivating for more than 13 years, bringing his own entrepreneurial skills to the party. His efforts accelerated three years ago with the release of the report of then Governor Bill Haslam’s “Tennessee Rural Task Force” that included a stronger focus on the agriculture sector and start-ups.

Nelson says AgLaunch is guided by a fundamental belief that farmers and entrepreneurs must work together if the former are going to meet the rising demands of the ever-growing population.

That said, he quickly adds, “We’re always experimenting,” a recognition that there is not a step-by-step validated roadmap for success in the ever evolving agtech sector.

In spite of that uncertainty, Nelson identified a number of strategies or programs that are keys to building a robust agriculture ecosystem. They range from creating ventures and growing those companies to providing programs, connecting farms and technology, cultivating talent, and identifying funding.

AgLaunch365 is one of the organization’s oldest programs. It is an acceleration process that provides a full year of programming timed with the farm production cycle to take start-ups from an initial product idea through field deployment.

The non-profit offers shorter duration programs such as the week-long “AgLaunch Bootcamp” offered in July in partnership with the Knoxville Entrepreneur Center. Similar programs are being planned with Tennessee State University in Nashville and Arkansas State University in Jonesboro.

Thanks to partner Innova Memphis and its $31 million Ag Innovation Fund IV, AgLaunch and its portfolio companies have access to several of the Rural Business Investment Corporation funding sources that can help address the access to capital challenge.

How do you facilitate connections between farmers and technology start-ups?

“You must have an organized, incubated network of farmers,” Nelson says. That’s the AgLaunch Farmer Network that provides testbeds for entrepreneurs with new technology ideas such as GroGuru, one of the two dozen start-ups in AgLaunch’s portfolio.

“Grant Norwood in Henry County is a good example of how we create win-win situations,” Nelson says. The West Tennessee farmer worked with the Fresno, CA-based start-up to test a revolutionary soil and irrigation management system that has been scaled to include vegetables and is expanding into row crops.

“Norwood and other Tennessee farmers in our network have a piece of every deal in which they participate,” Nelson says. “They are working for equity or the upside, something that is unique to our program.” That results in a positive economic impact for the community and the farmer.

The AgLaunch team also noted that many farmers were not monetizing the data they were collecting, instead giving it away. Now, with several data analytics start-ups in its portfolio, AgLaunch is able to link farmers and start-ups in projects that capture information like the nature of the soil, crop yields, and various inputs.

Finally, there’s the AgLaunch Value-Chain, an initiative that identifies gaps and missing opportunities along the agriculture and food value-chain. It connects farmers with existing markets as well as developing new markets like value-added processing and new food products and then connecting farmers to them.

As noted above, some of AgLaunch’s efforts extend beyond the borders of the Volunteer State. Both federal grants referenced in Part 1 of this series are multi-state in nature, and Nelson says that AgLaunch recently signed-up the Iowa Farm Co-op as a major partner.

“We’re a Tennessee organization, but we are building things with other states that help Tennessee,” he says.

NEXT: Look for three articles spotlighting start-ups that participated in the “AgLaunch Bootcamp” earlier this year. They will publish the first three days of next week.

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