So what’s harder to find: good ideas for improving agriculture and farmers’ lives, or money to make those ideas become commercial reality?
Both are in pretty short supply, but I’ll bet money is scarcer than good ideas. That certainly seemed to be the case yesterday at the Agri Innovation Forum, an event that brings together venture capitalists, entrepreneurs, scientists and engineers to to connect ag-based business idea with cash to pay to get it into the marketplace.
There were even a few farmers there and they were pretty popular with the venture capitalists and entrepreneurs, because agriculture and farming can seem weird and freaky to people who don’t often deal with them. “Hey look, there’s a real, live farmer! Let’s ask him.” That was the feeling I got from how some of the investors pursued some of the farmers there, locking them into 20 minute conversations. (I never could get to one of the farmers for an interview I wanted to do. He was far too popular with the vencaps.)
That was a point made by Pat Christie, the CEO of Conservis Group, which offers cloud-based farm management software for large and complex farms. He talked about the unfortunately familiar situation of talking to venture capital people for weeks and months, coming extremely close to making a deal, only to have the vencaps back out because they admitted not being able to understand agriculture and farming. That strangeness-of-ag element was addressed by Rob Saik of Agri-Trend, who was trying to raise $12 million to fund an expansion of his company’s Big Data wing, Agri-Data. Saik drew attention to the fact that his company has been dealing with thousands of farmers for many years, and is far more than just a good idea that is untested. As his company’s description says in the Agri Innovation Forum’s program, “We are FARMER CENTRIC.”
It’s easy and familiar for investors to think about setting up a new factory or laboratory, in Canada, the U.S., China or really anywhere, but dealing with stuff growing out in the field by a fiercely independent plethora of farmers is something that adds wrinkles that some just don’t want to deal with, so they hold back their money and some worthy ideas don’t make it to market.
That’s too bad, because there are some really great ideas out there. Yesterday there were funding pitches for everything from self-pollinating hybrids to in-row corn fertilization and seeding equipment to an all-natural, residue-free sanitizer for raw food products.
Some of these ideas are closer to commercial reality than others. That’s the case with the natural sanitizer, something that is already being used by a few hemp farmers. I saw evidence of that the day before the Forum when I was covering the Canadian Hemp Trade Alliance annual convention a couple of blocks away. I was checking out the hemp-heavy snacks and luncheon entrees when I got chatting with Rob Wong about his company’s solution to food safety dangers in raw foods like seeds and salad ingredients. Raw food can contain all sorts of things that can sicken and even kill people, and farmers can lose thousands of dollars worth of crop when they discover they have something tainting their seeds. Food companies and food providers don’t want raw foods treated with chemical sanitizers that leave a residue, so it’s not an easy situation to deal with. So the risk goes mostly unaddressed.
That’s what Wong’s company, Agri-Neo, is trying to address with Neo-Pure. It’s an “organic sanitizer that destroys pathogens on the surface and inside hemp seeds.” I’m not going to try here to describe how it works, even though I held a handful of the baby-forumla-like stuff. Just watch this video interview I did with Wong at the CHTA trade show:
But it just seemed to me to be an example of where brilliant minds in business and science are trying to find ways to develop products that can both help farmers and help the consumer. And if they can get it right, they can become rich. The problem for them, often, is finding the money they need to connect all the dots and get their products out there.
That’s the situation with Neo-Pure here. It’s already being used by a few farmers, it’s CFIA-approved already, but needs more development cash to commercialize it and get it all the way out there. The day after CHTA the Neo-Pure trade show booth reappeared a few blocks across downtown Winnipeg at the Agri Innovation Forum and company CEO Nick Dillon made a pitch for venture capital funding of up to three million dollars for Neo-Pure commercialization and development of two more products.
There’s a huge gulf between isolated farms in Western Canada, the laboratories of science-based startups and the concrete canyons of Bay Street and Wall Street, but when people can successfully connect those three elements, good things for farmers, consumers and investors can flow. I don’t know if any of these ideas I’ve heard about in the last few days will actually work out and make anyone money, but I hope it does, because most of this stuff isn’t based on stealing market share from somebody else in an existing category, but creating something new that makes crops and livestock more productive and valuable. That’s the kind of stuff farmers need to see.