How Iowa’s startup ecosystem is supporting agtech startups

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As the nation’s leading state for corn, pork, eggs, and renewable fuels, it is no secret that Iowa is a world leader in agriculture production. However, a fast-growing entrepreneurial ecosystem is proving that the state can also grow the next generation of technology businesses to serve the worlds’ farmers, consumers and agricultural industries.

Over the past five years, the creation of new incubators, engines, and accelerators across Iowa has built a unique combination of resources for agtech innovators and startups to find mentors, early-stage funding and support.

“Each business has a unique origin story and takes its own path through research, discovery, testing and commercial launch,” says Billi Hunt, Executive Director of America’s Cultivation Corridor. “In Iowa, we’ve seen tremendous growth in a diverse set of resources that are available to provide support and mentorship for entrepreneurs and technology developers at each step of their individual journey.”

Accelerator programs in Des Moines, Cedar Rapids, Ames, and other communities are speeding growth by providing access to mentors and resources.

Amos Petersen, founder and CEO of FarrPro, credits his participation in the first cohort of the Des Moines-based Iowa AgriTech Accelerator program in 2017 for jumpstarting his technology concepts into a successful business model.

“Once you have met the initial hurdles, Iowa’s investors and economic development agencies are more than willing to guide you and help,” says Petersen. “As a technology developer, if it wasn’t for all the great mentors, advisors and accelerators, I wouldn’t be where I am today. Leveraging that knowledge base is the best place to be for a startup.”

The Iowa AgriTech Accelerator is a mentor-led program that allows startups to collaborate with agriculture industry leaders and present their solutions to refine product-market fit, perform customer discovery within the industry, and build strategic partnerships.

FarrPro is an Iowa City-based company that designs and builds indoor environments to improve animal health, safety and efficiency. It’s first Haven product creates an efficient microclimate that keeps piglets warm, safe and healthy. The company completed its seed round in 2018 and has secured additional financing as well as product representation agreements. FarrPro has also won several pork industry awards including the Canadian Pork Innovation award and Producers Choice at the 2019 National Hog Farmer New Product Tour.

Michael Ott, CEO of Rantizo, participated in the 2018 cohort of the Iowa Startup Accelerator (ISA) program based in Cedar Rapids. ISA is an intensive, highly focused 14-week program aimed at early-stage (pre- or early-revenue) companies based in Iowa.

Rantizo has developed a unique drone technology that delivers targeted spraying for a variety of agricultural applications, including herbicides, insecticides, fungicides, pollen, cover crop seeds and more. The company became the first in Iowa legally authorized to use drones for the aerial application of agrochemicals and is currently fully licensed in 14 states.

“People in Iowa really understand agriculture and have a firm grasp of technology,” says Ott. “Everyone here understands that there are problems yet to be solved. If you bring revolutionary new ideas and new approaches to challenges, there is support here for your work.” 

“The network of potential collaborators and customers that can be found in Iowa is also critical, especially for small companies that that need to work with other service providers to bring products to market,” says Ott.

“One of the benefits of working in the Corridor is access to potential customers who want to try new things and provide valuable feedback,” he says. “We are able to find a lot of forward-looking farmers to validate our proof of concept and utilize our innovative products in the field.”

Students, faculty and alumni of Iowa State University are also tapping into a growing base of resources. 

As a graduate student, Dr. Martin Gross and his major professor Dr. Zhiyou Wen, invented a sustainable water treatment system that utilizes algae to remove pollutants in wastewater. Together they founded Gross-Wen Technologies in 2014 and are an example of how technology developers can effectively utilize university and Iowa-based resources to develop and commercialize ideas.

Gross-Wen Technologies was a member of the first cohort of the ISU Startup Factory, a unique, 52-week program located at Iowa State University Research Park that takes a startup from the lab to investor-ready. The team also worked at the ISU Biocentury Research Farm to test and conduct pilot-scale testing of Gross-Wen’s technologies. The company is now located at the ISU Research Park in Ames and is a member of the Ag Startup Engine. It currently has demonstration projects with Chicago, Creston, Iowa, and of Slater, Iowa.

“We have been fortunate to receive assistance from so many great programs in Iowa,” says Gross. “There is not a doubt in my mind that Iowa is a premier place to start and grow ag-tech related businesses.”

Gross-Wen has secured $6.4 million through both grant, debt, and equity financing with the help of the ISU Small Business Development Center (SBDC). They are currently working on a $5 million Series A investment round. They have also created 12 full-time and 4 part-time jobs, with plans for additional hiring in the near future

Steven Brockshus developed the idea for FarmlandFinder as a college student when he attended a land sale with his father.

“Bankers and potential investors were armed with financial data, and local farmers understood the production value of the land but piecing together a comprehensive picture of the land’s value and potential was difficult and time-consuming,” says Brockshus.

Brockshus built out the business concept for an online tool that could bring transparency to the ag real estate industry with support from programs like the Ag Entrepreneurship Initiative, CyStarters and the Ag Startup Engine at Iowa State, the University of Iowa’s Venture School and a variety of grant and pitch competitions. 

“These programs have given me the solid foundation necessary to build a company. Without their support, I wouldn’t be where I’m at today” he says. “They continually go to bat for what we’re building at FarmlandFinder and it amazes me how this community steps up to help, no matter what challenges we face.”

Brockshus and FarmlandFinder won the 2019 Farm Bureau Ag Innovation Challenge and recently completed a $3 million seed investment round in December 2019. Cultivian Sandbox led the round with participation from Iowa Farm Bureau’s Rural Vitality Fund and Next Level Ventures.

While each startup’s journey is unique, founders in every corner of the state are finding success with the help of a vast network of resources, mentors and programs.

“Collaboration throughout the entire entrepreneur ecosystem has made Iowa the place to be for anyone looking to grow an idea or build technology in agriculture today,” adds Hunt. “Nowhere else will you find the access to innovative farmers, potential investors, partners, and mentors, as well as ecosystem built to fuel success.”

For more information on America’s Cultivation Corridor, go to cultivationcorridor.org.

**This article was sponsored by America’s Cultivation Corridor, an AgFunder Network Partner. Find out more about them here.**

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