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Wednesday, 23 October 2013 19:00

Encouraging agripreneurs: GVSU/SVSU program to help commercialize ag-based innovations

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A newly-formed joint venture between the Grand Valley State University Center For Entrepreneurship and Innovation and Saginaw Valley State University wants to encourage agricultural technology startups to drive innovation in Michigan.

Sprout Labs has received a $70,000 grant from the Michigan Initiative For Innovation and Entrepreneurship that will be split between the two universities for the program.

Program Director Julie Cowie told MiBiz that the organization seeks to engage people in the agricultural sector with high-level ideas and bring them through to commercialization.

“We recognize that there is a lot of innovation in the (agricultural) sector,” Cowie said. “There is a lot of need for new technologies. We wanted to make sure people understood the many opportunities within the state of Michigan in the ag sector so that innovators would start considering ag and natural resources as the sector where they can try out some new, innovative ideas.”

Through the program’s upcoming three-day seminars, Sprout Labs hopes to bring together a variety of people with expertise in different fields of agriculture with the goal of spurring new ideas for technologies that could be utilized on the farm, Cowie said.

With an economic impact that exceeds $90 billion annually, agriculture and food processing are a large economic driver for the state. The question for economic developers is how can the state bring its legacy industry — comprised of small family operations — into the 21st century.

Those looking to commercialize agtech ideas could find inspiration in the story of Ann Arbor-based startup FarmLogs, which acted as a catalyst for the creation of Sprout Labs, Cowie said. The firm, started by two college students from the rural Caro in Michigan’s Thumb, provides a web application for managing a farm. Users can enter costs for equipment, seeds or fertilizer and keep track of weather information and monitor commodity costs.

To help bring the application to market, CEO and founder Jesse Volmar along with co-founder and Chief Technology Officer Brad Koch found funding from Silicon Valley-based seed accelerator fund Y Combinator, which also funded tech firms Dropbox and reddit.

“We know that there are more people with talent like (Vollmar and Koch) in Michigan. So we are looking for people of all ages,” Cowie said. However, she said Sprout Labs is particularly focusing on high schools and community colleges that may have students taking courses emphasizing agriculture. “They may have grown up on a farm and be familiar with ag operations and may have an idea of how to do something better.”

Sprout Labs itself is still a new venture, having just secured its grant funding over the summer months. The organization is holding its breakout workshop on Nov. 4-6 at GVSU’s downtown campus, followed by a similar event Jan. 8-10 at Saginaw Valley State University (SVSU).

As MiBiz previously reported, there are a number of other initiatives around the West Michigan area focusing on agriculture technology, from the funding stage through to commercialization. Ottawa County, for instance, is going through the planning process for an incubator for agtech startups. The county currently wants the incubator to exist in virtual form only. Upon showing results, the county commission could approve a physical space.

Dr. Joseph A. Affholter, the entrepreneur-in-residence at SVSU and one of the instructors of Sprout Labs’ upcoming three-day seminars, thinks that in time, the program will find itself as one of many parts of a larger network of organizations working to further the use of technology within the sector.

“Sprout Labs is just filling in one niche here, and there are many people doing great things throughout the state. What role Sprout Labs has in really fostering the development of the financing mechanisms … I think that remains to be seen,” Affholter said. “But I think it’s reasonable to say after a year of running pilots like this and helping people advance their ideas, that Sprout Labs will find its place in that ecosystem by working with a lot of people who are working in the venture capital and startup ecosystem.”

Affholter said that many local farmers — who are really involved in small family-run companies — aren’t comfortable investing in agricultural technology. He said that farmers are more prone to take their risks in new land or tools, rather than the development of technologies they could find helpful down the road but are not as comfortable using.

“It’s a different viewpoint than technology investors,” Affholter said. “The spirit of what [Sprout Labs is] doing is developing an advanced methodology for keeping Michigan at the forefront of 21st century agriculture.”

Read 4817 times Last modified on Wednesday, 23 October 2013 14:09

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