by Amy Wu
AgTech investment is growing globally but will agtech make its way to the classroom?
The answer is universities are slowly but steadily catching onto this wave of opportunity, specifically in educating a new generation of innovators and entrepreneurs in this space.
The Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) called “Innovation and Technology in Agriculture and the Environment.” AgTech is increasingly woven into the curriculums at universities considered a powerhouse for agriculture education such as UC Davis and CalPoly.
The program, which kicked off late last year, pulls together university teams where university students, the next generation of agtech entrepreneurs, develop ideas and solutions to some of the biggest problems that farmers face today including severe labor shortages, environmental regulations, and changing customer preferences.
At the THRIVE Demo Dayat the Forbes AgTech Summit this past June, university teams from Santa Clara University and Cal Poly San Luis Obispo pitched their solutions to labor shortages as part of the THRIVE-X challenge.
Judges awarded the winning team Ascensor of Santa Clara University first place, and a $10,000 cash prize for a modular hydroponic solution with better ergonomics for vertical farming. The second-place team, HiveSpy, was awarded a $5,000 prize for its solution using sensor technology to identify when and which hives are ready to harvest.
Last month, local colleges in the Salinas Valley Cal State Monterey Bay (CSUMB) and Hartnell College joined the THRIVE-X mix.
Walt Duflock, managing partner at SVG Partners, confirmed THRIVE-X is opening up the competition for 2018-19 to all universities and colleges in the U.S.
“We expect to see competitors from schools with and without an agriculture focus and most teams will include a mix of expertise, including engineering and business,” says Duflock.
He added, expanding the competitive pool nationwide will “create a wide range of potential solutions for farmers that are looking for innovations so they can grow more with less resources, whether the resources are labor, water, or land.”
The focus for THRIVE-X is to help student teams develop new solutions and work on commercializing them even after the competition is complete. The contest is not only about research and development, but also about developing and iterating new product solutions drawing from a large mix of disciplines.
“We hope that universities across the U.S. will choose to participate with teams made up of students that have an interest in agricultural problems and want to compete at solving some of the most difficult agriculture challenges,” Duflock says.
Now in its second year, Duflock said the program will also extend from eight weeks to nine months “giving us more time to educate the students??? Should reword this as we are not educating the students! so hopefully we get a better product for the farmers to see.” The goal is to take the products into the commercial phase.
In 2019, THRIVE-X will challenge students to create technologies that tackle some of agriculture’s biggest problems including a continued labor supply shortage and limited water supply. Student entrepreneurs will also find innovative alternatives to steer away from plastics use.
Municipalities and growers see opportunity
Companies such as Taylor Farms and Cisco and the city of Salinas strongly back the idea behind THRIVE-X. For the Salinas region, building agtech and entrepreneurship into the curriculum is a critical element of economic development.
The city is moving forward with its partnership with Hartnell College and the four surrounding cities that make up the Salinas Valley in developing a program to cultivate a knowledge-based workforce for agtech.
Salinas City Manager Ray Corpuz estimates within the next half year the program will ramp up the curriculum, may need to reword – we don’t directly affect the curriculum but the program may potentially drive changes to the curriculum & associated staffing staffing and bringing on board teachers and lecturers.
Corpuz anticipates the growth of agtech companies, which have offices and a footprint in Salinas, such as Trace Genomics will continue to hire whether it be biochemists or technicians. Corpuz said he sees the jobs centered on a “white collar workforce,” which requires new skills.
“The biggest single issue that agtech faces is not so much the new technology, but is taking the technology and making those practical business transactions and having the skilled workforce to implement what might be say a simple robotic machine. You might not need a four-year degree or engineering degree but you might have to service the robot.”
Brad Barbeau, a business professor at Cal State Monterey Bay, said the university is expanding its programming and courses when it comes to agriculture and technology. The opportunity, Barbeau says, lies in the region itself where agriculture in the Salinas Valley alone is a $9 billion industry.
“I would call it pervasive, all of our agriculture courses deal with agtech because it is the future of agriculture,” Barbeau said.
CSUMB has an agribusiness program and through the Institute for Innovation and Economic Development (IIED) supports programs that are agtech focused; last February it co-organized the first Women in Ag and Tech Entrepreneurship Forum. The well-attended event included a panel featuring women in agtech such as Pam Marrone the CEO and founder of Marrone Bio Innovations, Le Thuy Vuong the CEO and founder of Redmelon, and Deema Tamimi the CEO and founder of Giving Garden a company that creates software that connects communities with food.
In the pipeline is also a new incubator program that will be run through the IIED that focuses on the development of the agtech ecosystem. The program centers around helping entrepreneurs who are at very early stages, and will involve mentoring, workshops, education programs and an assessment process.
“The idea is to get them to a point where they go into an accelerator,” said Barbeau. The goal is to launch the incubator program by spring 2019.
The collaboration between growers, corporations, universities, local government and programs such as the THRIVE-X Challenge, appear to be the perfect formula to continue to develop a pipeline of talent.