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July 20, 2017

An Agtech Return on Investment

On any given day, the Western Growers Center for Innovation & Technology (WGCIT) is buzzing with energy from entrepreneurs who are all collaborating on innovative ideas and technologies to help solve agriculture’s biggest challenges. You’ll see the young engineers of HeavyConnect working side by side in the collaborative cubicles, coding new software that will eliminate paperwork in the field and streamline farm operations. In the back, you’ll find TracMap conducting equipment testing on its precision guidance system that enhances the application of crop protection products. In the conference room, you’ll hear Inteligistics pitching potential clients on its new sensor, Pulse™, which monitors produce condition from ”field to store.”

What started as a brief conversation between the Western Growers (WG) Board of Directors in July 2014 has now blossomed into an unstoppable agtech incubator. The WGCIT first opened its doors on December 10, 2015, with six agricultural technology (agtech) start-up companies. The Center has since transformed into a hub of collaboration and innovation, now housing 37 startups.

“We usually have lofty expectations, but this has exceeded them for the short time we’ve been open for business. We are now up to 37 startups in the Center with more in the pipeline. It’s grown very quickly past our original target of 30-35 startups,” said WG President and CEO Tom Nassif in a recent interview with AgFunder News on the Center’s latest developments.

Each startup has a unique expertise and is working on technology that will help solve a range of issues farmers face on a daily basis. There are innovations being developed that enhance food safety practices, using everything from sensors to data collection software. Numerous startups are specializing in aerial imagery and precision agriculture to improve crop yield by providing growers with detailed analytics about their fields and plants. The most recent startups who joined the Center are helping combat pests through management platforms, magnets and guidance systems for ground applications.


Bonds Form Between Startups and Growers
Having just passed its one-year mark, the Center has laid the foundation to achieve its main goal: to bring innovative entrepreneurs together with farmers to create commercially viable technology that provides solutions to agriculture’s most vexing issues.

As part of its suite of benefits, WG has established monthly events and exclusive opportunities where WG members are introduced to new innovations and agtech startups are able to connect one-on-one with potential clients and investors.

For example, Taylor Farms—both a member of Western Growers and a sponsor of the WGCIT—has formed bonds with numerous startups within the Center.

Most recently, Concentric Power developed a pre-engineered, prefabricated, modular power plant design that was installed at Taylor Farms’ food processing facility in Gonzalez, California. The new cogeneration plant will help Taylor Farms generate onsite electric power for low temperature refrigeration, producing an annual energy offset of 64 percent.

Taylor Farms has also provided seed money to several startups, including HarvestPort. “We are working together to reach out to other growers in the industry,” said Brian Dawson, CEO of HarvestPort. “HarvestPort provides growers a means to earn additional profit offseason by renting their idle equipment to peers. Taylor Farms and HarvestPort are united in seeking to drive the highest return to the growers we touch. Ultimately, we both win if farmers end up with an additional dollar in their pocket at the end of the year.”

Another WGCIT resident, Alta Energy, has worked with Merrill Farms to assess its energy usage, develop a sustainable energy plan, identify five sites where solar would be cost effective and develop solar arrays at two of those sites. The solar photovoltaic systems will yield $60,000 per acre of revenue annually for Merrill Farms.

HeavyConnect, another WGCIT startup, has helped many WG members, including Dole, Driscoll’s and Gill’s Onions, remove the paperwork from farming operations by providing software that allows owners to utilize digital timecards, easily track equipment and complete food safety inspections with a click of a button…from a smartphone.

Additionally, California Safe Soil recently opened a new production facility that will turn 32,000 tons of discarded organics per year into nutrient-rich liquid fertilizer and feed for agricultural use. The company’s Harvest-to-Harvest fertilizer has helped farms like Ratto Bros. increase crop yields while reducing water usage.


Sponsors and Startups Partner for Success

The relationship between ag and tech goes beyond WG members and the WGCIT startups. Partnerships are now forming between the startups and sponsors of the Center. The early successes of the WGCIT would not be possible without the Center’s 17 sponsors, some of whom are playing an integral role in the launch of these start-up companies.

In April, Wexus Technologies, Inc., teamed with Pacific Gas & Electric, one of the newest WGCIT sponsors, to bring new water management tools to agricultural customers. Through the collaboration, Wexus and PG&E enable conservation of both water and energy.

“One of the most significant energy uses on farms is moving and pumping water. We will remotely connects pumps, buildings, PG&E electric SmartMeters and water flow meters via cloud technology,” said Chris Terrell, founder and CEO of Wexus. “This gives ag customers another option to track, interpret, and manage their water and energy use effectively.”

JV Smith Company is another sponsor that has already started working with numerous WGCIT startups and continues to be on the lookout for new, innovative technologies coming out of the Center.

“JV Smith Companies is proud to be a sponsor for the WG Center for Innovation & Technology as we believe the Center is a key to help us navigate the uncertainties of the future,” said Vic Smith, president and CEO of JV Smith Companies. “Our business survival is based on the knowledge and ideas that are being developed through this important facility. We have been fortunate to have met and developed relationships with some great new companies including, but not limited to, Trace Genomics, SWIIM and GeoVisual Analytics. By participating in this important forum we have gained access to the latest best technologies to enhance our competitive position.”


WG Playing Matchmaker

Western Growers will continue to facilitate relationships between the startups and the industry through unique events, regular programming at the Center and special initiatives. WG recently launched a Soil Microbial Health Initiative with Trace Genomics to assist farmers in understanding how soil biology is a key factor in crop productivity, disease susceptibility and crop quality. As part of the initiative, WG coordinated a “sit down” between growers, researchers, government entities and agribusinesses, where Trace Genomics had the opportunity to speak about their technology and demonstrate how to put it to use.

WG also provides startups with exclusive opportunities to connect with growers and garner feedback to help perfect their technologies. During Board of Director meetings, startups within the Center are afforded the chance to present in front of the Science and Technology Committee—a group of growers who are well-positioned to discuss the feasibility of implementing innovative ideas in their fields. WG also hosts AgSharks™ (formerly the Innovation Arena) during the WG Annual Meeting where startups present their technologies to the membership and receive advice from growers on how to best bring their product to market.

“All of these companies are still developing their technology and need to work with industry members to garner the appropriate input to help perfect their products,” said Hank Giclas, Western Growers’ senior vice president, strategic planning, science & technology. “It’s a win-win. Startups gain the insight needed to create a viable product and our members can become early adopters and be on the forefront of these leading-edge developments.”

WG is not just talking the talk, it’s walking the walk as it has formed official partnerships with both SWIIM and iFoodDecisionSciences. WG has tapped iFoodDecisionSciences to develop technological solutions that will help the industry better address, enforce and manage food safety concerns and outbreaks.

WG is also working with SWIIM to provide farmers with a technological solution that is designed to help manage water use more efficiently. SWIIM’s growth has exploded over the past several months and CEO Kevin France attributes part of the success to the support and guidance WG has provided his company.

“Key Western Growers staff, and especially Western Growers members themselves, have provided invaluable input on how we can start offering our package to all types of growers to benefit more of the industry,” said France.


What’s Next for the WGCIT?

In the future, WG hopes to obtain a location where startups can use the land as a deployment site or demonstration field. The results from the proving ground would then be available to consumers. For example, all the startups working on developing water sensors to improve water management would be able to test their technology for a season. WG would then gather the data to develop a consumer report, which would be available to the public as a guide on water sensors—including costs, differentiators, ease of implementation, types of data provided, etc.

WGCIT and WG staff are also placing a stronger emphasis on actively bringing in startups and technologies into the Center that solve WG members’ most pressing needs. The first effort of this “solutions-orientated” approach was addressing water needs in the Central Valley. WG recently held a Deeper Dive event in Fresno where water startups and growers came together to brainstorm the strategies and tactics that farmers AND technologists might utilize to better work together to solve issues surrounding water. Next on the list? Robotics and automation.

“The inability of our federal government to provide agriculture a legal workforce has been the driver for automation including robotics and mechanization,” said Nassif. “While technology is moving at a rapid pace, worker shortages are increasing faster. We have no choice but to automate as many agricultural jobs as possible, moving the farm worker into higher paying, less stressful technological jobs. It can’t happen fast enough, but it will happen, and we encourage and financially support those efforts.”