It’s been nearly five years since Western Growers shook the future of farming as it set out to open one of the first agricultural technology centers in the United States. December 10, 2015, marked an important moment in agtech history as the Western Growers Center for Innovation & Technology (WGCIT) became the only technology center in Monterey County aimed at bringing innovative entrepreneurs together with farmers to facilitate creative solutions to the biggest challenges facing agriculture.
“Salinas is the salad bowl of the United States, and its proximity to Silicon Valley and the Bay Area makes the region ideal for cross-pollination between the ag and tech sectors,” said Tom Nassif, former president and CEO of Western Growers. Nassif launched the Center under his regime.
“This city provides, both figuratively and literally, the fertile ground technology companies need to connect with farmers and perfect their innovative solutions to the biggest challenges facing the ag industry,” Nassif said at the time.
Since first opening its doors with just six start-up companies, the WGCIT has housed more than 75 companies all striving to develop cutting-edge technologies that will benefit fresh produce farmers and the specialty crop industry as a whole. Today, the center houses 50 companies working on everything from mechanization and irrigation management to food traceability and precision agriculture.
“We are so much more than just an incubator and accelerator,” said Dennis Donohue, director of the WGCIT. “Being a tech center, we are in the unique position of representing a cross-collection of folks—those who build the technology, invest in the technology and ultimately buy the technology.”
Over the past five years, the WGCIT has ushered in a new, more intimate agtech experience and has arrived at the point where it has become a recognized international leader in specialty crop innovation and technology. Below tracks the evolution of the WGCIT.
Grand Opening: The WGCIT officially opened its doors, providing start-up companies with access to hot desks/work stations, amenities of a traditional office and regular programming—classes, workshops and networking events—designed to provide them with the business knowledge and customer relationships they need to successfully bring their technologies to market.
Forbes AgTech Summit: Forbes Media hosted its first AgTech Summit in Salinas Valley, where Western Growers was a strategic partner and has been every year since. The summit, which features the WG Innovation Showcase, was among the first efforts in WG’s major initiative to speed innovation that solves problems for our members.
WGCIT Scholarship Program: With funding from Wells Fargo, the Western Growers Foundation established a scholarship fund for agtech startups. The WGCIT Scholarship Program is arguably the first scholarship program of its kind providing the winner with residence at one of the country’s premier agtech incubators. To date, 20 scholarships have been awarded.
First Exit: Trace Genomics becomes the first startup to successfully exit out of the WGCIT, launching the first scalable soil microbiome test to enable the early prediction of soil diseases, soil health and crop quality. They were followed by HeavyConnect, TracMap, and Tailwater Systems who “exited” the WGCIT in 2019. Though all four startups grew large enough to expand their operations out of the Center, they are still involved in many WG and WGCIT happenings.
AgSharks: WG partnered with S2G Ventures (Seed 2 Growth) to launch a groundbreaking initiative to identify key innovations in the fresh produce industry, called the AgSharks® Competition. AgSharks is a live event, hosted at the WG Annual Meeting, where start-up companies compete for equity investments totaling up to $250,000 to support the development and growth of their businesses, as well as for farm acreage to pilot their technologies. To date, a total of $3 million has been awarded to four startups (Hazel Technologies, AgVoice, Augean Robotics and mobius pbc).
AgTechx: As part of the WG’s key focus to bringing agricultural technologies to farmers, the Center created AgTechx—signature events where growers, researchers, technologists and entrepreneurs gather in key agricultural production areas for riveting discussions about future farming technology. The first AgTechx event launched in Brawley on February 8, 2018, and has since been held in Reedley, Coalinga, Delano, Sacramento and King City. In total, more than 1,000 people have attended the AgTechx events.
Automation Initiative: WG officially launched its Automation Initiative—an industry-led initiative designed to accelerate field automation progress with a primary focus on field harvesting. WG/WGCIT gathers growers, agtech entrepreneurs, venture capitalists and leaders from technology companies to collaborate on strategies and tactics, as well as create a roadmap, to make the integration of automation more accessible to farms of all sizes and crops.
Grower Trial Network: WGCIT kicked off the first meeting for its Grower Trial Network—an organized group of WG members who trial and evaluate technology coming out of the WGCIT. The group, which is led by Future Volunteer Leaders and supported by WG board members and the Center’s sponsors, holds its annual strategic planning session at Harris Ranch, where they discuss how to further accelerate the development and availability of technology that will enhance the competitiveness and profitability of the specialty crop sector.
Voices of the Valley Podcast: WG created its first podcast: ‘Voices of the Valley.’ The podcast features WGCIT Director Dennis Donohue, as he interviews leaders in agricultural technology and innovation on new solutions for today and tomorrow’s challenges. The podcast currently has 60 episodes and has been downloaded more than 6,500 times.
2020 and Beyond
In addition to developing and enhancing ongoing agtech initiatives, the WGCIT looks to further establish itself as a global stop in the agtech world.
“We have succeeded in becoming a destination for innovation on a global level,” said Donohue. He notes that when international consulates and organizations visit Salinas they request to see the WGCIT to learn what technologies are coming out of the Center and what initiatives are being developed.
“We’ve already formed strategic partnerships with New Zealand, the Netherlands and most recently Canada,” said Donohue. “As we continue to advance the development of solutions and adaptations for our members, we’re evolving into a tech center that is a key player in the global agtech ecosystem.”
On a more local level, the Center will continue to act as a “concierge” service, connecting WG members with WGCIT startups who are developing technologies that directly meet their specific farm and commodity needs. “We know who all the players are, so we are able to fill the gaps and be the direct line between innovators and growers—all with the hopes of rapid commercialization,” said Donohue.
Numerous startups have grown and flourished through their involvement with the Center, including Concentric Power, which built a cogeneration system for Taylor Farms and True Leaf Farms; Concept Clean Energy, which recently completed a solar trial at Huntington Farms; and FarmWise, which just raised $14.5 million to continue development of its autonomous weeding vehicle. Additionally, many of the startups that more recently joined the Center are moving and shaking, building both their technologies and teams. Among them are AgTools, which will use its recently awarded $200,000 from the San Diego Angel Conference 2020 to further enhance their tool that aggregates immense amounts of data and simplifies it down to key factors to improve decision-making for farmers, suppliers and buyers; Naio Technologies and Tensorfield Agricluture, two companies now working with WG growers to perfect their autonomous weeders; and Germany-based Novihum, which is successfully growing its team in Salinas and breaching the California market with its revolutionary soil enhancers.
To assist startups, as well as WG members, in building their workforce, the WGCIT also plans to invest in becoming a career-advancement learning center. The Center has plans to serve as an “agtech academy” where students and ag industry employees will learn how to use emerging technologies to advance agriculture through hands-on learning modules, real-world demonstrations and educational programs.
“The future of agriculture is becoming increasingly technical and the agriculture workforce is not keeping pace with the technological developments of the industrial world,” said Donohue. “The key to rapid adoption is upgrading the skills of the current and future workforce on the farm. We, as a tech center, will make that education a necessity.”
The original vision of the WGCIT serving as a hub for the accelerated development and rapid deployment of innovative solutions to help farmers feed more people with fewer inputs still hold true today. Over these past five years, the Center has incrementally evolved and will continue to expand its offerings to further transform the agtech space in both the United States and around the world.