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Indiana aims to be ag-tech central

Tom Campbell Alan Gray
HIGH-TECH AG ENTREPRENEURS: Alan Gray hopes the Digital Innovation in Agri-Food Systems Lab will spawn new startup companies with digital solutions for the ag food industry.
A Purdue program is building innovative agri-food startups from the ground up.

At the crossroads of business and academia, the Digital Innovation in Agri-Food Systems Lab is filling the technology gaps from farm to fork.

With the mission of “advancing food and ag innovation,” DIAL aims to be a trailblazer in the agri-food system for solutions to missing links throughout the value chain.

The first of its kind, DIAL is a unique venture studio focused on serving the agriculture industry by creating startups in the food and ag sector. DIAL’s goal is to launch 10 startup companies in the next five years. Allan Gray of Purdue University’s Department of Ag Economics started the innovation lab in the fall of 2021. It is headquartered on Purdue University’s campus in the Convergence Center for Innovation and Collaboration.

DIAL is a separate entity but has direct ties to the Purdue College of Agriculture, industry and innovators.

“We have 150 years of history with the College of Agriculture and its deep relationships with industry partners,” says Tim Dixon, DIAL’s senior director of innovation talent and new ventures. “We work with those partners to solve the biggest problems they see in the industry, making sure each company we launch has ready market acceptance and higher odds of success.”

The team will look to the College of Agriculture for ideas and talent to help in their business-building pursuit and focus on digital agriculture. Dixon has an extensive background leading startup companies in Silicon Valley, Chicago and Dallas, and fostering innovation at early-stage businesses.

“Having been a startup founder and understanding the many challenges of the role, I look forward to applying DIAL’s model to help others become successful founders when they launch their companies,” Dixon says.

Dixon is currently staffing the first DIAL “cohort,” or group of entrepreneurs. He is looking for open-minded entrepreneurs willing to learn about the agri-food industry and open to taking risks in an industry primed for growth and transformation.

How it works

The DIAL program follows a multiple-step process to bring ideas to fruition. The process begins with an assessment of needs. Farmer and industry needs will be the driving force in these projects, and connecting with people will be essential, Dixon says.

“Starting in summer of 2022, we will host a two-day workshop with food and agribusiness professionals from around the country to identify key strategic areas for focus,” says Gray, executive director of DIAL. “Prior to this event, we will launch a crowdsourcing event to gather as many ideas as possible, so those that can’t attend the event can still weigh in on the most pressing needs for the industry where a digital solution may help.”

In the future, DIAL will also generate ideas from corporate partner ideation sessions, collegiate forums and research advances, both at Purdue and other universities.

After the “needs assessment” phase, DIAL entrepreneurs will work to connect needs to solutions. Each year, DIAL will have a class of “fellows” or entrepreneurs in the DIAL cohort. These fellows will be funded to be on the team in West Lafayette, Ind. Entrepreneurs will start with a case competition format, formulate pitch decks, create product mock-ups and launch decisions for these startup companies.

Creating a company

The processes we utilize in the studio are designed to bubble up the best ideas in the industry,” Dixon explains. These future founders can turn ideas into a business model and bring it to life.

Acting as a support system, DIAL can coach and connect fellows to investors, getting them through the startup process of seed funding in their early years. DIAL will have a database, created by Purdue students, that makes it easier for entrepreneurs to connect with the right funding firms that match the startup’s interests. In the early phases, DIAL is working with High Alpha, based in Indianapolis, to learn from its playbook of building and funding startup companies.

By reducing the risks of creating a startup company, the DIAL team hopes to see more innovative solutions introduced to the marketplace.

With extensive experience in the corporate agriculture space, Ben Van Nostran is DIAL’s senior director of business development and new ventures. “We combine industry-inspired ideas with talent, capital and a venture studio process to ensure resources and structure are provided during the creation of companies focused on digital innovation across the agri-food system,” he says.

Keeping it local

By creating a space for ideas to grow, DIAL hopes to draw entrepreneurs to Indiana. “We have a vision to make Indiana the hub for ag tech in the U.S. We see no reason that we can’t be the Silicon Valley of ag tech,” Gray says. 

As DIAL grows, there will be more opportunities for Indiana agriculture to get involved. In fact, many industry leaders are already getting involved with the innovation lab.

We are cooperating with AgriNovus and the Indiana Economic Development Commission to enact changes across the state,” Dixon says. “[DIAL aims] to promote Indiana as the leader in agri-food systems, and we hope that will entice many of the companies that we launch to stay in Indiana.”

Because the venture studio is positioned in the Purdue University Convergence Center with companies like Bayer, Beck’s and Wabash National, participants will have direct ties to Purdue and corporations across Indiana and the U.S. The purpose of this building is to allow companies to place offices close to campus so they can interact with students and have a collaborative workspace.

To learn more, contact Gray at [email protected].

Barrett is a senior in agricultural communication at Purdue University.

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