When Sarah Nolet decided to write her master’s thesis on venture capital in agriculture, she probably didn’t realize it would lead to a career in agricultural innovation.
“I was really fascinated by the potential of technology and entrepreneurship to solve a lot of problems” she says. “What I started to see what a gap between ag and Agtech. A lot of technologies being developed that weren’t solving problems.”
That gap is something that has come up often in conversations about agricultural innovation. There is a big difference between getting excited about the potential of ideas and the reality of whether or not those ideas solve real problems or create real value.
I had the opportunity to speak with Sarah about this gap as well as how the AgTech ecosystem is developing to support startups trying to solve real problems in agriculture.
Growing up near the Silicon Valley, Sarah leveraged an education in Computer Science and a master’s program studying Systems Design and Management at MIT into a thriving consulting firm called AgThentic.
The company creates some of the best resources about the global AgTech ecosystem, including a database of accelerators, incubators, prizes, pitch competitions, and venture development organizations.
This episode kicked off a series on the podcast called “Accelerating AgTech”, where we featured exciting agricultural technology startups as well as the accelerator programs that are helping to make the companies successful.
What’s an accelerator, anyway?
Accelerators are businesses created for earlier stage startups that offers a program which provides support to a cohort over a period of time. They give them training, mentors, and access to resources and support. Often but not always they give each startup some cash for some equity.
Benefits of these programs can include seed money, mentorship, resources, customer validation, connections to investors, exposure, and a certain notoriety that can come with being accepted into what are often exclusive programs.
Sometimes it’s just difficult to get customers to take you seriously when you’re first starting out. Getting the support from an accelerator program can be just the “warm introduction” a startup needs to start gaining some traction with potential customers.
The Growth of AgTech Accelerators
There has been a bit of an explosion of AgTech accelerators in recent years, in part due to increased investor interest in the space.
I asked Sarah if she’d noticed an over-saturation of these types of programs.
“We are starting to see certain ecosystems plateau” said Sarah. “Australia is a good example, which I know well. About two years ago, the first accelerator had just been launched, and now there are seven. So that shows a huge growth in the space. Now there is definitely this feeling on the ground that ‘we don’t need another pitch competition, we don’t need another prize. We need to get on with building these companies.’ But two years ago that wasn’t true, so it changes quite quickly.”
Sarah also shares a bit of a cautionary tale not to lump all farmers into the same category when making assumptions about the market. Farmer customers are extremely diverse in everything from crops to farming practices, to business ambitions to risk tolerance to technology adoption.
One specific group she visited with was using very little technology in their farming operations:
“It was really interesting to see how little adoption there was of things like Google Suite or productivity/business tools that you would think might be more well-adopted. So, I think that’s coming and there’s obviously a huge range. But my sense has been recently that a lot of the enabling conditions or technology isn’t there so that makes this whole data of inoperability much harder because so much of these things are not digitized and data not standardized.”
To those wanting to start an agtech venture, this can be a challenge. Maybe you can get a small handful of progressive farmers to adopt your technology, but this does not mean it can scale.
One more area that having the support of an accelerator could come in handy.