Three alumni of the “AgLaunch Bootcamp” program shared their insights on Tuesday with the current cohort during the latter’s semi-weekly formal session, and it should not surprise anyone who has started a business that their lessons learned were some that you would expect.
For example, Tony Bova, Co-Founder and Chief Executive Officer of mobius, talked about the importance of non-diluted sources of capital like grants and pitch competitions, particularly for those conducting R&D.
“I think our first capital was $1,000 from a UT (University of Tennessee) pitch event,” he said, adding, “We’ve been funded pretty heavily by grants.” The company with the tagline of “There’s Wonder in Waste” has raised about $2.2 million from the two sources, and Bova said mobius was planning to launch a funding round at the end of March before COVID-19 put those plans on hold.
Today, the company has seven employees including an intern as it creates biodegradable plastics made from lignin, the initial phase in its long-term plan to create renewable chemicals, materials and energy from waste materials.
Bova also emphasized the importance of identifying and securing good partners, something that means attending events virtually and in person when that again becomes feasible. “In the ag space, I learned how important relationships are,” he said.
Joining Bova on the alumni panel were Tom Ellsworth, Founder of Ag Lighting Innovations in Madison, TN, and Mark Johnson, President of EquipassID in Shelbyville, TN. Both are ag-focused technology companies with very different missions. In Ellsworth’s case, his company started with a focus on lighting for poultry industry growers, but it has now expanded to swine, livestock, facilities and event non-agricultural businesses. EquipassID is an equine records management system delivering the world’s first read/write injectable RFID microchip for the high-end horse industry.
Johnson reiterated a familiar theme with his advice: “If you believe in your start-up and what you are doing, stick with it,” he said. “You are going to get a lot of nos from investor, even those in agriculture who don’t know your space. No only means no today.”
Another familiar message – focus – was hammered home by Ellsworth. “It’s the hardest thing for me to stay focused,” he said. “Develop a good plan and stick to it.”
Like mobius, their two companies have been impacted by the coronavirus pandemic. In Ellsworth’s case, he said 2020 “was to be our breakout year,” but revenue growth is good but not to the level he expected. Yet, he described an opportunity that came unexpectedly. Ag Lighting Innovations’ biggest client – a well-known poultry brand – asked for a new lighting device in the past few months. “We developed it in weeks, and they liked the prototype,” Ellsworth said. “Now the company needs to determine the best and most economical way to produce it.”
EquipassID decided that the COVID-19 pandemic and the upcoming national election were slowing investors, so the company has decided to spend more time on R&D. “We want to be sure we have a product that will be approved by the American Animal Health Association,” Johnson explained.