Thursday, January 29, 2015

Louisville accelerator for agriculture companies

I spent the last four days in Louisville, Kentucky helping lead the last of three sessions of an agriculture technology accelerator. This is the sixth time I've been to Louisville to lead such a session and the fourth such program I've either led or co-led.

The accelerator was a program of Village Capital, an organization that has a truly unique approach to educating entrepreneurs and selecting companies for investment. It took place over three 4-day sessions (October, November, January). I also helped lead a similar program in Louisville in summer 2013. The organization for which I'm senior advisor, VentureWell, collaborated with Village Capital to teach the program. Four of our teams (from NSF I-Corps, which we manage, and from our E-Team grants program) were part of the cohort of ten. One of the ten was from Kentucky and the rest from around the country--Georgia, California, Washington, Arizona, Colorado etc.

The unique approach of Village Capital is to commit $100,000 to the cohort and have the cohort members themselves--the participating companies--choose which two companies, at the end of the cohort, best merit funding of $50,000 each. Each of the first two sessions, and at the beginning of the third session, there's a peer-ranking process completed. After the ranking is completed, peer companies have to articulate the reasons behind both the positive and negative scores they gave to their peers. This helps surface areas where the companies have to do better at explaining their business model, or areas where they simply need improvement. On the last day--in the case of this program, that was yesterday--the peer selection process becomes real, that is it results in the award of investment funds.

I'm more convinced than ever that this is a great driver for business acceleration. It produces a tremendous opportunity for iterative learning and challenges companies to understand how to think like an investor. Surprisingly, it also results in an incredibly collegial cohort rather than a "survivor-type" experience. Because the companies are adjacent but not competitive they can be of great value to each other. Sure they're competing for the final investment, but it's not enough money to drive them crazy, just enough to make them serious.

The companies in the cohort were as follows:

Agribotix: actionable intelligence for precision agriculture using drone derived scans of farmer fields.

Apitronics: site-located weather stations for more accurately and inexpensively monitoring diverse environmental factors – such as temperature, moisture, and humidity – within the microclimate of a farm field.

Farm-X: residential farm kits and larger scale farm monitoring and analytics.

FIn Gourmet: Kentucky grown wild-caught fish processed into surimi products.*

Growcentia (NSF I-Corps graduate). Natural plant growth stimulant result in bigger plants with smaller environmental impact through healthy soils

Iron Goat (VentureWell E-Team). Robotic hay harvester and pelletizer.

IUNU. Greenhouse lighting that is 30% more efficient than LEDs, with tunable light spectrum to improve plant growth.*

reNature (VentureWell E-Team). Super space and time efficient aerobic digester.

TekWear. Hands-free data capture and note-taking for farmers.

Wildsense (NSF I-Corps graduate). Wireless, underground water monitoring with a five year life--no digging up the sensors every year.

* These are the two peer selected companies but truly a tremendous and highly investable cohort overall.

If you're interested in seeing the companies, they'll be doing a fourth session in at UC Davis on February 20 and 21. Contact Candice at VilCap.