An AgTech Revolution In Our Backyard

A historic agriculture community, the City of Salinas is using its biggest asset to drive new opportunities for its residents, and startups around the world

 

For the past three summers, Main Street in Salinas, California has become the gathering place for corporate executives, startup teams, growers, and academics looking to commercialize the next agriculture technology. Perhaps an unlikely venue for hype usually reserved for the Silicon Valley to take place, Salinas has become the place to grow and scale seed and growth stage agriculture technology startups. But it is its proximity both to growers in the surrounding agriculture sector and startup and VC cluster 40 miles north in the Silicon Valley which give agtech and foodtech companies locating there a strategic advantage.

For all the success of the city's fledging agtech economy, the infrastructure and strategy behind it are relatively new to city hall.  For decades, the climate and soil of the Salinas Valley have made it been a hub for agriculture production and processing and home to some of the largest specialty crop producers in the world. In 2013 the city faced a major unemployment crisis, as the shuttering of one of its main non-agriculture employers, Capital 1, meant that hundreds of residents were out of work. 

The city responded quickly, gathering with SVG Partners and a group of experts across different sectors. City staff then conducted an analysis of Salina’s strengths and weaknesses, ultimately returning to agriculture as an invariable asset. Andy Myrick, economic development director in Salinas, describes how technology came into the picture at that point: “there was a collective recognition that technology was proving to be this huge disruptive force across industries.” Looking back, Myrick recounts that disruption in agriculture had yet to be seen, “and that’s when we saw the opportunity”.

Once defined, the emergence of Salina’s agtech ecosystem was be propelled by the industry players already established in the city. Taylor Farms, Mann Packing, JV Smith Farms, and Western Growers Association all had a role to play in mentoring and guiding new startups and delegations interfacing with the city. Taylor Farms opened its brand new headquarters on Main Street that housed an incubator center on the ground floor, with Western Growers in charge of operating the new center. SVG Partners launched the THRIVE Accelerator, a 10-week business acceleration program attracting businesses around the world to locate and deploy their technologies in the Salinas region.

“The accelerator became the city’s innovation pipeline,” said SVG Partners and THRIVE founder and CEO John Hartnett, “the result of which is nearly 40 startups that can be found in the innovation center today.” Those startups that locate in Salinas and work through THRIVE are able to get meetings despite the industry’s “handshake-based” exclusivity. Myrick says, “In addition to providing new companies with mentorship and investment, THRIVE works as an introduction to a lot of C-level executives in the region.” Startups in the center can also work through the Western Growers Association to access farmers to test and refine their products with intended customers.

While bringing new agtech business into the city has been a key lever of the city’s economic strategy, Myrick does not fail to elaborate on the city’s equal commitment to including Salinas' local population, a third of which are under 18 and many of which have skills for manual labor, in the agtech development. Together with SVG Partners, the city launched the Kauffman program to help local entrepreneurs and students develop their ideas into businesses. After two successful years that put 50 local residents through the program, the city broadened its efforts to include youth age 8 to 17, teaching entrepreneurship and coding. In early April of this year, the city welcomed Digital Nest, a program that prepares youth by teaching them both technical skills like coding and soft skills useful in managing and growing a business.

The city’s most recent step has been to work with Hartnell college to establish a workforce program bringing together the city’s various programs and partners to provide career pathways in agriculture and technology to the city’s population.

So how was the city able to realize its goal to become a globally recognized agtech hub in 4 years time? Myrick attributes the success of Salinas’ economic development strategy to having figured out what they did really well- in its case, agriculture. “In the end, we are an agricultural town and we have no intention of straying from this,” says Myrick, “and by focusing on where agriculture is going in terms of technology, we can train our workforce accordingly while propelling the industry that is so integral to who we are.”