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‘Providing a front door’ for ag entrepreneurs

History is filled with examples of entrepreneurs ginning up ideas that revolutionized U.S. agriculture. Those early pioneers had local communities that helped them nurture and grow their brainstorms until they became viable products.

But where do today’s Eli Whitneys and John Deeres and Cyrus McCormicks turn to get the help they need to launch their great innovations and build industries around them? That’s one of the biggest challenges facing agriculture as it seeks to feed, cloth and provide fuel for a rapidly growing world population.

Steve Bares, president and executive director of Memphis Bioworks Foundation, an organization that works with entrepreneurs in a number of fields, including agriculture, talked about the process during a presentation at the Tennessee AgriTech Challenge in Murfreesboro, Tenn.

“I have the privilege every day of working with entrepreneurs, whether we’re working with entrepreneurs in the agricultural space, in the medical device space or in the logistics areas,” said Dr. Bares. “The one thing you learn I think in the community and in the state is that entrepreneurs put batteries in our communities.

“They light the way; they provide the energy; they give you jobs; they make it so that our kids want to come back to the state and work. That’s what this is all about. What we’re trying to do is build a system around helping entrepreneurs.”

The Memphis Bioworks Foundation, which organized the conference along with the Tennessee Department of Agriculture and USDA, has a track record of assisting entrepreneurs in taking their ideas to the marketplace.

Another fact Bares has learned is that ag entrepreneurs’ good ideas don’t get automatically translated into success. “That’s not what happens,” he said. “It’s actually hard to be an entrepreneur in the agricultural space. It’s not clear where we go to get the information we need.”

Too often, Bares said, entrepreneurs don’t know where to go to get the information they need on subjects such as irrigation or other areas of expertise that could help solve problems they face. They often don’t know where to get the capital they need.

“What we’ve done is we’ve made it hard for entrepreneurs, the batteries or the energies behind our communities,” he noted. “What we’ve learned in this process is that when you talk to new entrepreneurs or your customers, they tell us ‘we need to figure out how this works; we don’t get it.’ They need a front door.”

That doesn’t mean that only one organization should be working with entrepreneurs and providing that single front door, according to Bares. “If we’re doing this right, we need 12 organizations that are doing this across the state. But we still have to have a place where it all makes sense, where it all comes together.”

The goal, he said, is to enable hundreds of entrepreneurs to start many new agricultural companies in Tennessee.

Participants in the Tennessee AgriTech Challenge heard presentations by four representative startups that are seeking help in getting established. The four are scattered across the state and even into Mississippi:

n  Climate Adaptive Genetics. James West, a professor at Vanderbilt University and chief technology officer for the company, described a breeding program that would put Angus cattle in white coats to make them more tolerant of the heat in climates like Brazil. The project is being developed by Vanderbilt and Middle Tennessee State University.

n  Hivalgo. John Reams, CEO, described a system that would provide refinements in grain and oilseed training through the use of information technology.

n  Croptell. Scott Sartor, CEO, discussed developing new financial farm planning software for the row crop farming industry.

n  Sytheros. Jim Stratigos, CEO, talked about developing a wireless sensor platform for agriculture and other industries.


Ron Meeusen, a former scientist with Dow AgroSciences who now directs a venture capitalist firm called Cultivian Sandbox Ventures, spoke on “Investing in Agricultural Innovation,” and three panelists, William Brown, dean for research and director of the University of Tennessee Agricultural Experiment Station; Walt Mullins, trait manager for Bayer CropScience; and Barry Knight, chief executive officer, Cresco Ag LLC, spoke on “Does Tennessee Have a Role in Global Ag Innovation?”

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