When the clock hit 4:00 p.m. on Tuesday, October 31, 2017, six startup companies fiercely pitched their technologies to a panel of investors and farmers in hopes of receiving generous investment offers and ample acreage to pilot their innovations. Two startups left with monumental offers while others left with partnerships that will be key to the companies’ ability to scale.
The inaugural AgSharks™ event kicked off during Western Growers (WG) 92nd Annual Meeting in Las Vegas, making it the first agricultural technology competition to offer real-time investment opportunities and decision-making in front of a live audience. With JV Smith Companies President & CEO Vic Smith piloting the event as moderator, six startups using technology to help solve issues faced on the farm presented their product to a panel of ag leaders and financial investors. These judges then inquired more about the product and feasibility of use.
“If you have an employee standing next to your 500-pound piece of equipment, what sort of safety precautions do you have so that the employee doesn’t get run over or harmed?” asked Ryan Talley of Talley Farms to representatives from Augean Robotics, who invented a robot that follows pickers in the field. Talley was one of six judges determining the viability of the ideas. The others were: WG Directors Rob Yraceburu of Wonderful Orchards LLC and Edwin Camp of D.M. Camp & Sons; and Sanjeev Krishna, Chuck Templeton and Matthew Walker from S2G Ventures, a key sponsor of the event. In addition to feedback from the judges, the audience had the opportunity to use the Annual Meeting app to rate if they would “buy, try or deny” the technology.
When the presentations concluded and the audience survey results were tallied, the room fell silent as the judges deliberated on which companies would receive equity investment offers. The AgSharks called up Bruce Rasa, CEO of AgVoice, and offered a convertible note investment of $200,000 at a $3 million cap. Rasa then rebutted, emphasizing the importance of how the company is developing the world’s first voice and data management system that allows ag professionals the freedom to work hands-free while on-the-go. Rasa triumphed and left the stage with an offer of a $250,000 convertible note at a $4 million cap.*
“AgSharks helped bring us one step closer to our vision of giving any farmer, rancher and grower the ability to push a big button on their phone and have their voice records convert to data,” said Rasa. “This event is a first of its kind and is crucial to cultivating innovative solutions that focus on changing the system, not fixing the symptom.”
Fueling the enthusiasm of the crowd, the judges made an announcement that took everyone by surprise and had the audience nearly falling off their seats with excitement. Smith invited Aidan Mouat, CEO and co-founder at Hazel Technologies, Inc, to the stage to converse further with the judges. The company develops inserts that fights spoilage and slows the aging process of fresh produce. Learning that 70 percent of the audience voted to “buy” Hazel Technologies’ product, the Sharks decided to offer the start-up company an equity investment of $2 million.
“We are grateful that Western Growers and S2G gave us this platform to show how Hazel Tech increases returns, reduces labor cost, and opens new markets for grower-shippers,” said Mouat.
In addition to the offers made to AgVoice and Hazel Technologies, the start-up companies who pitched their technologies—Augean Robotics, Farm Dog, Food-Origins and iFoodDecisionSciences—walked away with connections that can lead to pilot programs or sales.
“AgSharks is an unprecedented event demonstrating the full potential of Western Growers’ innovation efforts,” said Tom Nassif, WG president & CEO. “AgSharks brought together growers, investors and agtech startups in a single forum to prioritize and fund technology that will help solve agriculture’s most pressing issues and move the industry forward.”
AgSharks is the latest WG effort to support agtech startups in accelerating the introduction of unique products and services to the market. In December 2015, WG opened an agtech incubator—the WG Center for Innovation & Technology—in Salinas, CA, to provide startups with the resources and mentoring needed to get their companies and technologies up and running. The center now houses 51 startups, including five of the six startups who competed in AgSharks. Startups involved with WG and the WGCIT are afforded the opportunity to participate in groundbreaking events, such as AgSharks.
“We are thrilled to have partnered with Western Growers which brings trust and access to local and regional farmers providing over half the nation’s fresh produce,” said Krishnan, managing director of S2G Ventures. “By providing capital to the entrepreneurs at Hazel Technologies and AgVoice, S2G and Western Growers support innovation on the farm and in the supply chain to improve farmer productivity and profitability.”
*The cap is the maximum price at which the note will convert. AgVoice is still in the early stages of growth and when it reaches the next round of growth, the convertible note will transform into a percentage of the company.