If someone asked what are the "hot" industries that more and more venture capital firms are examining closely these days, chances are few people would include agriculture among their top five, or maybe even their top ten.
And that would be a big oversight, said Sam Fiorello, chief operating officer and senior vice president for administration and finance at the Donald Danforth Plant Science Center. The St. Louis, Mo.-based Center is the world’s largest independent research institute focused on plant science.
"Five years ago, there may not have been all that much interest in agricultural technology," he observed. "But we’ve tried to convince and show investors that agriculture represents a big opportunity. Whenever you have an industry facing major challenges – and feeding a growing world population is about as big as they come, you also have major opportunities.
"Venture capital firms that maybe never had thought twice about agriculture are now coming forth and are among the leading investors in the industry."
What has caused that change?
One factor has been the Ag Innovation Showcase, a gathering of innovators, investors and others from around the world involved in agricultural technology and its potential. The fifth showcase was recently held at the Danforth Center and, like the others before it, the event brought together thoughtful leaders focused on issues of predominant interest both to agriculture and society as a whole.
If the conference raises images of stodgy academicians and financial types droning on about esoteric minutia of their respective specialties, that, too, would be an erroneous assumption. From start to finish, the fast-paced event featured one mind-boggling discovery and thought-provoking discussion after another during its two-day run.
Boring speakers with nothing to say need not apply for a spot on the showcase agenda.
Networking breaks and opportunities for private, investor-innovator discussions added to the mix.
Months of planning and preparation go into the annual event.
Earlier in the year, details about the late summer conference go out to researchers and innovators around the world. Those interested in winning a spot on the program to tell about their latest advances are invited to submit application documents and a business plan.
"We had about 100 submissions this year," Fiorello said.
A geographically diverse panel of investors and entrepreneurs reviewed the information and ultimately settled on 19 applicants who were invited to make a presentation at the September conference.
Of those on the agenda, it was almost an even split between presenters from this country and overseas. Ideas and products ranged from plant and animal health, a variety of farming innovations, information technology and biological solutions to advances in renewable and sustainable practices.
One of the more intriguing presentations was from SenesTech, Inc., an Arizona firm that has developed a way to reduce rat populations without using rodenticides that are rarely cost-effective, can be lethal to humans and other animals, and harmful to the environment.
The company’s solution is a product that drastically reduces rodent fertility in a non-surgical, non-toxic and environmentally neutral manner.
The initial focus is on rats because of damage they do to crops, animal feed and urban infrastructure, and the deadly diseases they often transmit. But the product can be modified to target other species including mice, wild horses, dogs, cats, wallabies and other animals where humane population control is needed.
Among other innovations reviewed were:
A Canadian company’s patented technology converting properties of mustard seed into formulated soil fumigants and fertilizers controlling soil-borne pests and diseases and supporting soil health.
Technology to increase crop yields with biotech-based traits enhancing photosynthesis and carbon fixation in plants.
An Australian firm’s process to encapsulate ethylene gas into a powdered product that ripens harvested fruits in transit rather than in ripening rooms at the market where the produce is sold. The technology means fruit can get to market quicker, cheaper and in better condition.
A Dutch company’s system that manages irrigation with solar-powered, soil-moisture sensors. A system developed by two firms in the Netherlands for cultivating plants in a highly controlled environment more energy efficient than a conventional greenhouse. Water consumption and labor are minimal and pesticides are not used. The process has been used successfully in growing ferns and has been extended to growing green-leaf plants such as lettuce.
A Minnesota company’s LED lighting system designed to boost production in poultry, swine and aquaculture operations.
Since the showcase began in 2009, 95 percent of the companies making presentations at the event have found potential partners while four out of five presenters seeking financing have matched up with potential investors.
"Our success has turned some heads," Fiorello remarked, "and agricultural investment today is no longer limited to commodities and land deals.
"We anticipate there will be more conferences like this one spring up, but we have a head start and a track record.
"With our world’s population increasing and more and more people achieving a level of affluence enabling them to afford a better diet, how can we provide what will be demanded? The only way we can answer that is with science and innovation."