By Stephanie Metzinger
Powering up the computer to see perfectly rectangular boxes with familiar faces peeking through, tiled one after the next, has become the new norm.
When the COVID-19 pandemic struck and hosting in-person gatherings was ill-advised, video conferencing became a common practice. Events and meetings across the world went virtual, opening the floodgates to broader reach and more opportunity. Members of the Grower Trial Network (GTN) have fully embraced the change and are using this COVID-induced opportunity to expedite the trial and adoption of technology within the agriculture industry.
The GTN is an organized group of Western Growers (WG) members who trial and evaluate technology coming out of the Western Growers Center for Innovation & Technology (WGCIT) in Salinas, CA. The group, which is led by Future Volunteer Leaders and supported by WG board members and the Center’s sponsors, held its kick-off meeting in February 2019 at Harris Ranch in Coalinga, CA. Since then, they have gathered at various locations up and down California and Arizona to hear pitches from agtech start-up companies, provide feedback and connect on potential trials or collaborations. However, when COVID-19 hit, all meetings went virtual and ultimately expanded the network’s capabilities.
“The growers and participants like the virtual format because sessions are an hour with only a couple companies presenting at a time so it’s more in-depth,” said WGCIT Director Dennis Donohue. “Even after COVID, the virtual aspect will stay part of the program in addition to physical gatherings.”
As part of the new format, growers can hear about budding technologies from startups residing in the WGCIT—some of which are located in other states and across the globe. These startups also now have the unique opportunity to speak to growers who previously would not have been able to attend in-person pitches due to conflicting schedules. The convenience of virtual GTN meetings has birthed new opportunities for growers and startups to, together, refine technologies to meet the exact needs of the agriculture industry.
“Technology has become such an integral part of agriculture, and it will continue to play a key role in the industry moving forward. The success of start-up companies depends upon receiving quality grower feedback,” said Colby Pereira, vice president of operations at Braga Fresh. “Specialty crops need tailored technologies in general and individual companies have very unique needs, so the GTN is an invaluable forum to facilitate the exchange of that information.”
During the sessions, Pereira focuses on providing direction on measurable objectives on the farm as well as input on certain data/metrics, cost-benefit analytics and ease of implementation. The meetings have resulted in numerous relationships with companies that have either previously been part of, or are currently part of, the GTN.
“I try to make a point of keeping in contact with companies I’ve connected with during the GTN meetings. I find it to be mutually beneficial as the startups are constantly evolving with their capabilities and we as growers are constantly identifying new operational needs for these technologies to fill,” she said.
Along with pitching their products, the startups also have the opportunity to receive feedback on their business model. WG members who participate in the GTN meetings are leaders at their companies—many of which have been in business for 50 or more years—and provide the entrepreneurs with guidance on how to build a thriving company. Most entrepreneurs in the Center are still in the beginning stages of building a scaling business, so the advice and mentorship from growers have proved invaluable.
Connecting with these growers during the GTN meetings has also played a crucial role in helping entrepreneurs grow their network. At each session, startups are in the “virtual room” with a handful of agricultural leaders, technology pioneers, business moguls and potential investors and customers. The online forum creates a more intimate environment, allowing both startups and WG members to further their engagement and deepen their relationships.
“A lot of the benefit we get from GTN is in introductions to other companies and potential customers,” said Bryan Banks, founder and chief operating officer at KipTraq. “While we have not yet closed any deals with companies we have been introduced to through GTN, we’re close to closing a few.”
KipTraq, which creates a flexible mobile data collection tool that streamlines any data collection process in minutes, is also delving into collaborations with other members of the GTN. The agtech company has been part of the WGCIT since May 2019, and since its involvement, has made significant connections by engaging in WG-related events such as the Forbes AgTech Summit and now the online GTN meetings.
Moving forward, the WGCIT will make the program more customized to better meet the needs of both the grower and the startup. GTN meetings will now target specific companies to be paired with specific growers. For example, WGCIT startups working on technology to help mitigate bee colony losses will be paired with almond growers and water technology startups.
The new tailored model will be implemented in future sessions with the help of Netafim, a GTN and WGCIT sponsor. Israel-based Netafim, a global leader in precision irrigation solutions for sustainable agriculture, has played an integral role in identifying participants for the program—in both the previous in-person forum and new virtual format.
“Netafim is on a vital mission to help our hungry world grow more food, using less of our precious resources,” said Roy Levinson, Netafim’s digital farming commercial lead. “The Grower Trial Network provides us with the unique opportunity of connecting our most forward-thinking growers with the latest innovation in agtech. This allows us to help growers vet new product offerings and we can contribute to the refinement of the startups offering to ensure efficacy in the field.”
Netafim joins a whole host of WGCIT sponsors from around the globe who have generously funded and supported the WGCIT. These include philanthropic-minded WG members across California, Arizona and Colorado as well as new supporters from Canada, New Zealand and the Netherlands.
Though an unexpected shift, the quick adaptation to virtual meetings due to COVID-19 has introduced a global connectivity element for WGCIT resident start-up companies. Startups housed in the Center can now have access to an unrivaled number of companies worldwide and can pitch to growers across the nation and in other parts of the world. GTN strives to provide widespread access similar to that of the world’s largest global airline alliance, Star Alliance, which offers its members a network that is constantly expanding and presenting new global business opportunities in emergent economies.
“Because the world is so virtual, thanks to COVID, it is also now smaller. You can talk to anyone, anywhere,” said Donohue. “The Western Growers Center for Innovation & Technology has strengthened our global ties, and we are well on our way to providing ‘Star Alliance’ access through our Grower Trial Network.”