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VOL. 131 | NO. 99 | Wednesday, May 18, 2016

Ag-Focused Startup Accelerator Launching Cohort

By Andy Meek

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The community of startup founders launching companies in Memphis keeps getting bigger.


AgLaunch Accelerator, which will incubate six agriculture and food innovation startups in the city, is launching a new cohort in August. The program is a collaboration among the Memphis Bioworks Foundation’s Ag Innovation Development Group, the Tennessee Department of Agriculture, EPIcenter, Start Co. and a variety of other partner organizations.

Applications are being accepted through June 17 for the six teams, which will get a pre-seed investment of up to $50,000 and access to farmers, investors and strategic partners, among other benefits in the 15-week accelerator.

It launches Aug. 15 and culminates with a Demo Day – at which investors are pitched for follow-on funding – on Nov. 17.

“My group will be leveraging our mentor and farmer networks,” Pete Nelson, vice president of agriculture innovation at Bioworks, told The Daily News. “Agriculture is an area where we really have an opportunity to be world-class. We have good water, great soil, a lot of farmers, a lot of infrastructure in place, and we’re building this innovation component into that.”

The cohort will be led by Bioworks’ Ag Innovation Development Group, an internationally recognized venture development organization that provides leadership and access to a network of mentors and technical experts. AgLaunch Accelerator also has ties with corporate sponsors and investors, and access to regional research farms, leading farmers and agribusinesses such as local partners Agricenter International, Henderson Transloading, Mid-South Family Farms, Ritter Agribusiness and Valley View Agri-Systems.

And there’s another even more important component to the accelerator – it’s part of a statewide goal of growing 100 new agriculture startups by 2022, according to Nelson. Moreover, he said agriculture represents a $70 billion industry, one with abundant entrepreneurial and innovation potential.

“Agriculture is far different than what it was a generation ago,” said Tennessee Department of Agriculture Commissioner Jai Templeton. “It’s an industry that continues to evolve and is now more high-tech than ever. AgLaunch is exactly what Tennessee needs to develop home-grown ideas and entice new agri-businesses to establish roots in our state.”

The AgLaunch Accelerator is funded in part through a grant from Launch Tennessee. It plans to focus on technologies like robotics, automation, biologic-based pest control, specialty crops, equipment modifications, food safety and supply chain innovations, among others.

The accelerator has a particular interest in startups that address big problems in agriculture and involve things such as herbicide-resistant weeds, spray drift, water management, supply-chain integrity and soil health.

The AgLaunch Accelerator cohort comes amid a busy startup season in Memphis. Seven startup accelerators already have begun their summer programming separate from the AgLaunch effort.

Meanwhile, Memphis-based venture firm Innova has received a conditional license from the U.S. Department of Agriculture to form a $25 million agriculture innovation-focused venture capital fund by working with a group of Farm Credit Banks.

All of which is to say, according to Bioworks president and executive director Dr. Steve Bares, the accelerator and its partners have lined up the right assets – from investment to programming – to expand Memphis’ startup ecosystem yet again.

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