More than 50 startup companies now work with the Salinas, Calif.-based Western Growers Center for Innovation and Technology, which opened two years ago.
Startups there have raised more than $26 million, created about 140 jobs and connected with numerous growers, said Western Growers president Tom Nassif.
“It’s been a success beyond our wildest expectations but a very welcome one because this is a desperate need of agriculture,” Nassif said.
Through events that it hosts and events in which it partakes — like the Forbes AgTech Summit — the center has enjoyed a rising profile.
“People have come to know us, they’ve visited our center, and now we have people coming in to us asking if we have something they can actually invest in, whether it’s a fund or a list of companies that might be of interest to them and are compatible with their investment goals,” Nassif said. “That’s what you always dream of is people are coming to you rather than having to chase them to make something work, and that seems to have been what’s happened today.”
The center continues to work on strengthening relationships with the venture capital community, and it is seeking feedback from growers on the startups at the center and the technology in development.
Hank Giclas, senior vice president of strategic planning and science and technology for Western Growers, said the organization is working on formalizing groups of growers that will routinely review companies and their projects using a web portal.
The center works with all startups located there, but there are a dozen or so “stars” that have drawn outsized interest from the industry, Giclas said.
Trace Genomics, which changed its course slightly after talking with growers in discussions facilitated by the center, is one such startup.
The company focused on analyzing soil health, with applications including monitoring how the status would change depending on factors like whether the crop was covered, how much it was fertilized and other factors. Input from industry presented an alternate purpose for the technology.
“The growers said, ‘Well, if you can analyze the soil microbiome and tell us what’s there, can you tell us about its potential for disease? You’re identifying some of the organisms that are in the soil, what are the predications of this particular soil in this particular region for soilborne disease?’” Giclas said. “And that sent Trace Genomics back to the drawing board to try to develop a specific test to be able to do that, and that’s what they’re out in the marketplace with some success with now.”
The company now has an office in Salinas and is building a laboratory.
“That’s kind of the epitome of what we’re trying to do there,” Giclas said. “We’re trying to identify technologies that have some utility to our industry, put these startup companies in direct contact with growers so that the solutions are kind of refined to meet their needs, and then help them grow.”
Sometimes startups partner with one another. One area of particular interest for Western Growers is robotics, so it hopes to develop a consortium with companies that work in that sphere.
“When we start to get two or three companies or four companies that are doing component parts, something like automation, people who have expertise with vision or locomotion or manipulation, or those types of things, we think about it in terms of can we build a team that potentially can accelerate it, because our whole purpose is accelerating solutions,” Giclas said.