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June 30, 2015

A Primer on WG’s Innovation Efforts

Over the next month or so, as the Western Growers Center for Innovation and Technology takes shape on the ground floor of the new Taylor Farms building in Salinas, so will the association’s effort with regard to innovation.

Previously, our President and CEO Tom Nassif elegantly articulated the need and the opportunity for the association as an entity to exhibit leadership in the area of agricultural technology by seeking out and fostering the development of new technologies to address the challenges production agriculture faces.  Our membership has embraced the concept, but there continues to be some questions surrounding how Western Growers will be involved.  What will our involvement look like?

The WG Innovation Center adds both physical and philosophical structure to what we are going to be doing.  As the concept for increased involvement in innovation technology was being developed, the WG board and staff itemized what might be necessary to launch a successful initiative to accelerate innovation.  It was determined that there were several key functions that would be necessary, including:

1.  Identifying and prioritizing the needs of the industry that were ripe for technology solutions

2.  identifying, developing or spurring the development of technologies that could address those needs

3.  proving the technologies worked by facilitating, fostering and when necessary, refining their deployment in a commercial setting; and

4.  providing the capital necessary to bring technologies to market

Western Growers evaluated our resources and expertise, and found that we had strengths in several of these areas, but that strategic alliances with other experts and ongoing initiatives would take this initiative farther faster.  Earlier this year, we aligned with the Silicon Valley Global Partners (SVG Partners), an established group of experts that have a long history of identifying and bringing technology to market.  Based in San Jose, they are embedded in the heart of Silicon Valley and are highly visible to technology startups, and well known amongst the investment community.  SVG Partners’ strengths in the technology sector coupled with Western Growers’ strengths in the agricultural sector provide the nucleus for a robust and successful innovation initiative that connects these communities.  We will engage with them for the next three years and expect our collaborative effort to yield a strong community of innovators housed in the Western Growers Center for Innovation and Technology in downtown Salinas.

Our collaboration with SVG also includes involvement in two programs currently ongoing: Thrive Accelerator and the “Forbes Reinventing America: The AgTech Summit.”  Thrive Accelerator is a highly selective mentorship and investment program for technology-enabled startups in the precision agriculture space.  Ten of the best startup companies are selected annually for an eight week program that helps give them skills and develop networks to succeed.  The results of the 2014/15 Thrive Accelerator class will be on display at the 2015 Forbes “AgTech Summit” which will be held July 8 and 9 in Salinas.

This annual event will help to showcase technology and agriculture and how it is evolving to help feed more people, using fewer resources and reducing any negative impacts on people and the planet.  In each of these programs, Western Growers is providing financial support as well as engaging with expertise and leadership to help shape the content and ensure utility to the agricultural industry.

Western Growers has also committed funding from our for-profit companies to invest directly in technologies that hold promise for the future of agriculture.  This commitment is part of a larger pool of funds (including investments from individual WG member companies) that is being developed to provide venture capital for promising startup companies.  This technology fund will provide seed money to startups in exchange for equity in the company.  Western Growers’ primary goal in investing is to accelerate the availability of technology to members, but the fund may yield returns that can help sustain our technology investment efforts.

Moving forward, the WG Center for Innovation and Technology in Salinas will serve as the hub for our innovation efforts and quite possibly a template for similar activities in other areas.  The space will include staffing by WG employees, but, more importantly, it will offer a place for innovation to matriculate.  Companies participating in the Thrive Accelerator or otherwise identified as worthy occupants can, on some type of temporary basis, operate out of this facility.  It is being designed like other technology centers as an open space in an effort to stimulate the exchange of ideas and connections within the Center.

WG members, executives and others in the industry will have access to this space as they analyze and mentor technology companies.  A very significant part of high tech innovation revolves around real-world industry connection so that ideas on paper can be vetted and tested so that the solution matches the problem and works in a real industry setting.

The Center will offer a great opportunity to bring innovator and end user together.

We cannot seek the best technology without a clear line of sight to member priorities and issues.  We understand that issues like reliable, affordable water, labor, and crop protection tools are top priorities, but members need to tell us specifically “What technology would you invest in if it was available tomorrow?”  Western Growers encourages industry thoughts on these topics and will be contacting industry members for input.

In fact, we need member companies to volunteer to test drive technology and provide candid feedback to startups.  Lots of technologies may hold promise in the garage or laboratory but fail in a real world setting.  They may be inappropriately priced, may not be fast enough to keep pace with your business, may not be rugged enough to work in your environment or have a number of problems or concerns that can only be surfaced—and resolved—in concert with industry. If you are willing to test technologies—particularly those that are priorities for your company, please volunteer.

As the next Thrive Accelerator begins, it is our expectation that Western Growers Center for Innovation and Technology will be utilized as a hub that will provide more visibility to the industry and offer tangible evidence of the work being done and the progress being made.

Finally, it should be reiterated that Western Growers embarked on this plan because our end goals are a bit different than others seeking an expansion of technology in the agricultural space.  Most want to see a more efficient use of our resources.  Of course, that in itself is a worthwhile goal and may foster the development of investment-worthy technology that we will applaud.  But we also plan to steer technology development in a more targeted fashion so that today’s problems are addressed and near-term solutions found.  We are working toward the survival of today’s agriculturalists.  We want the farmers working the land today to survive and thrive.