Entrepreneurship


Article of the Day

Battle of the Statehouses – Wall Street Journal

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Iowa has long been the New Jersey of the Midwest with the nation’s highest corporate rate and a punishing 8.98% top income rate. Republicans this year made the Hawkeye State more competitive by putting the top income tax rate on a path to 6.5% by 2023. Over the next three years, the state’s 12% corporate rate is set to decline to 9.8%—assuming GOP Gov. Kim Reynolds isn’t defeated. Her Democratic opponent Fred Hubbell has warned President Trump’s trade brawls may compel him to hit pause on the tax cuts.

~ Wall Street Journal, Battle of the Statehouses, October 24, 2018

Economic Incentives and Growth

Election day nears and debate about tax policy has some prominence in both federal and state elections, at least in Iowa.

2018 in Iowa saw something I wasn’t sure I would experience, passage of tax reform legislation.  Since the 1990s I’ve had spirited discussions with a variety of elected officials about a tax structure for my home state that puts it at a disadvantage.  A sigh and shrug.  “Taxes are hard.”  So is life, but most of us get out of bed each morning and make a go of it.

Iowa has consistently ranked between 40th and 50th in various tax rankings.  It’s not a fact disconnected from those rankings that the state often ranks in the same place for business startups, venture capital investment, new manufacturing investment, etc.

The 2019 State Business Tax Climate Index from the Tax Foundation produced the data in the Wall Street Journal article.

2019 State Business Tax Climate Index

From the report: In 2018, Iowa legislators adopted a comprehensive tax reform package which will ultimately reduce both individual and corporate income tax rates and eliminate the state’s unusual provision of a deduction for federal income tax payments, subject to revenue availability. These changes are not in effect in 2018, but Iowa’s rankings can be expected to improve as reforms phase in over the next few years.

So movement in the right direction at least!

The White House in September was touting U.S. Census Bureau numbers on new business applications.  When a new business forms, it applied for an employer identification number from the Internal Revenue Service, so this can be tracked in a fairly real-time fashion.

New Business Applications by Quarter 2004 to 2018 United States

New Business Applications by Quarter 2004 to 2018 Iowa

The first quarter of 2018 there were more than 850,000 applications in the United States for EIN’s, the highest number, by FAR, in a long time.  Iowa actually tracked this trend with almost 6,000 applications at the same time, though it fell off from the fourth quarter of 2017 whereas the U.S. continued to shoot up.

How many of these corporations actually end up creating jobs is difficult to forecast early, however.  Some corporations, for example, may be formed as holding companies or ‘shell’ corporations created for tax purposes.  There is nothing wrong with this, but economists are interested in how many end up creating new economic activity, jobs and wealth.

Economists that monitor new business formation have feared for quite a while a long-term drop off in entrepreneurial startup activity.  The Kauffman Foundation, for example, has charted this trend and created constructive conversations about its roots and the implications.

Might we be seeing a return to historic levels of new business formation?  If so, this is good news indeed for economic growth.

The White House naturally enough touted tax and regulatory reform as the basis for growth.  Leaving the political arguments aside, at the heart of this notion is that incentives matter.

Economic growth results when people:

  • Produce/work
  • Save
  • Invest

Disincentives to these three activities will reduce economic growth.  Incentives for these activities will increase economic growth.  There are caveats, for course, but these represent the core drivers of economic growth.

Federal and Iowa tax policy are now set to provide stronger incentives for production, saving and investing.  Improved economic growth, all other things being equal, will be higher.

Of course other things are not always equal.  Trade policy, for example, has created significant disincentives in agriculture for production, saving and investment.

But maybe, just maybe, Iowa can leave behind references from the Wall Street Journal and others as the ‘New Jersey of the Midwest.’

Article of the Day

Brazil to Boost Grain & Meat Production by 30 Percent by 2028 – Reuters

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The trade dispute between the U.S. and China is potentially setting the stage for a decade-long impact on U.S. agriculture

~ Dave Miller, Iowa Farm Bureau

Five Insights from 2018 Business Beyond Boundaries Program

We had the privilege of hosting two groups of farm and ag business professionals from Brazil the last two weeks for the 2018 version of the Agricultural Entrepreneurship Initiative‘s Business Beyond Boundaries program, one cohort in central Iowa the other in California.  The program is about developing entrepreneurial skills and behaviors and exploration of innovation in agriculture.  Thanks to the rich assortment of entrepreneurs, experts and professionals that we meet there are a number of insights each of us takes from the program.

Five of these insights include the following.

  1. Brazil is positioned for continued growth in agricultural production potential – The untapped agricultural production potential of Brazil is very significant.  The Agriculture Minister predicts 30 percent growth in grain and meat production in ten years, but that may be too small.  Double cropping potential, undeveloped land, large farm sizes, and a number of other factors give Brazil significant upside production potential.
  2. Crop specialization in the future leans toward the U.S. in corn and Brazil in soybeans – Back in the 1990s I created an econometric model of the world of agriculture supply an demand 10 years in the future.  I recall that it predicted part of the significant growth in Brazil soybean production, though it fell short of the actual growth.  It also predicted emphasis in Brazil of soybean over corn production and in opposite in the U.S.  That prediction still remains the case.  A lot depends on trade flows, but the likelihood of divergence between corn and soybean acres in the U.S. ten years from now is significant.
  3. The challenge for global agriculture is more about quality than quantity – The often-cited challenge to agriculture of feeding more than 9 billion people is less significant than about how they will want to be fed.  The world can produce a lot more food, but can it meet the expectations of an increasingly choosy and discriminating customer base?  Tomorrow’s food consumer will have expectations that in many ways cannot be met by today’s agrifood supply chains.  Particularly in the U.S., there are significant opportunities to create new, non-commodity supply chains.
  4. Agricultural technology can spread quickly, but a culture of innovation and adoption does not – There are a number of intriguing agricultural technologies that will be marketed and tested in the next period of years, some with great value others more questionable.  Effective integration and adoption of technologies may be a challenge, however.  Creating a deeper culture of experimentation across the industry will be important.
  5. Consumer and technology trends point toward a more disaggregated agriculture – Parts of agricultural supply chains have tended to be controlled by relatively small number of large firms.  Fragmenting consumer markets and technologies that empower more direct coordination and connection of consumers to agricultural producers point to a much more decentralized, fragmented, disaggregated agriculture in the future.  More on this topic will be offered in a future post.

Thank you to the many hosts and contributors to the 2018 program!

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Article of the Day

Daron Acemoglu on technology and the future of work – MIT News

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In short, software is eating the world

~ Marc Andreessen 

Economics of a pre-tech versus a tech world

Much of my startup experience is in what today is classified as ‘agtech.’ And agtech is by all evidence a big deal.  There are many accelerator programs related to starting agtech businesses, funding of agtech startups has grown, etc.

Funding for agtech startups has increased significantly.  As tracked by AgFunder News, investment in agtech increased from about $150 million in 2010 to more than $800 million in 2016 and more than $500 million in 2017.

Stepping back from agtech for this post, I’d like to address the larger issue of just tech.

Technology is nothing new, of course, whether agriculture of any other industry.  What may be new is the speed and scale at which technology can shape new opportunities and disrupt existing businesses and industries.

The taxi industry is not new.  Smartphones are relatively new, however.  Put a smartphone in the hand of someone who wants a ride and in the car of someone who is willing to provide that ride and there are significant opportunities for businesses like Uber and Lyft.  There are also a host of issues arising from incumbent businesses fighting to preserve the past order.

Uber and Lyft for the taxi industry, Amazon for books initially and now retail, AirBnB for lodging, Google for media – technology enables new businesses to disrupt the existing order of industries. New businesses creating new competition for incumbents isn’t new, but the speed and scale that technology enables is new.

At the heart of the economics of technology is its ability to alter both average total cost and marginal cost.  And to alter them both significantly.

Recall (maybe from ECON 101) that prices and quantifies in a given market will be determined where marginal costs equal marginal revenue.  The general rule is that the firm maximizes profit by producing that quantity of output where marginal revenue equals marginal cost.

The chart below is a simple description of what a technology can do for a market when marginal costs and average total costs are decreased significantly.  The world for an existing business in the pre-tech world doesn’t change just a little.  The world changes completely.

Economics Pre-Tech and With Technology

Prices with technology are below the average total cost of pre-tech businesses.  Tech-enabled businesses operate at quantities (horizontal axis) and a scale not possible pre-technology.  Tech enabled businesses operate at prices not possible pre-technology.

Pre technology businesses are obliterated by tech enabled businesses.

While a simplified and extreme example, the chart depicts why information technology, the Internet, machine learning, sensing devices, artificial intelligence, and other technologies are such a big deal for many markets and industries.

Two tech businesses, Google and Facebook, now bring in more than one-fifth of global advertising revenue.  Digital advertising was really just in its infancy ten years ago, and now two businesses have more ad revenue than the global publishing business combined.

Did newspapers and magazines do something wrong?  Not really.  But the world changed.  Having scale for advertisers not that long ago meant being able to reach perhaps hundreds of thousands of potential customers by advertising with a large newspaper or magazine.  Today with Google and Facebook, you can reach billions.  Or if you have a more targeted and local business, you can do that too.

In the next post, I’ll dive deeper into agtech.

 

Building an Ecosystem for Agtech Startups

Excerpts from Kevin Kimle’s February 15, 2018 testimony to U.S. the House of Representatives Small Business Subcommittee on Agriculture, Energy, and Trade

Technology is nothing new, of course, whether in agriculture of any other industry.  What may be new is the speed and scale at which technology can shape new opportunities and disrupt existing businesses and industries. Agtech is by all indications important.  There are many accelerator programs related to starting agtech businesses, funding of agtech startups has grown, etc.

Funding for agtech startups has increased significantly.  As tracked by AgFunder News, investment in agtech increased from about $150 million in 2010 to more than $800 million in 2016 and more than $500 million in 2017.  Transactions like Monsanto buying Climate Corp in 2013 for $930 million or in 2017 DuPont Pioneer buying Granular for $300 million certainly got attention of investors, entrepreneurs and agricultural business professionals.

Both Climate and Granular were founded in Silicon Valley, the hub for tech startups and investing. Will there be a Climate or Granular type exit event for an agtech startup from the Heartland? Is there an ecosystem for agtech startups apart from Silicon Valley?

A 2017 report from M25 examined the Midwest and labeled it as the region that will give rise to the next crop of $1 billion-plus companies (Schulman 2017). From where does that observation arise? What’s going on in the Midwest?

Can the Midwest be a Hub for Agtech Entrepreneurship?

The Midwest is home to the greatest concentration of animal protein supply chain activity in the United States and early-stage agricultural technology activity in the Midwest is particularly relevant to these supply chains. For purposes of this paper, the Midwest is comprised of Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, North Dakota, Ohio, South Dakota and Wisconsin.

The Midwest has a strong concentration of public and private entities focused on developing agricultural technology. It is home to land grant public universities that provide a unique network of cutting-edge basic and agricultural science platforms. There is also a concentration of agricultural businesses engaged in technology development at many different levels. The Midwest is a catalyst of US agricultural innovation, knowledge transfer, and entrepreneurship development.

And yet there is much untapped and undeveloped potential for agtech entrepreneurship and investment-related activity.

Examples of geographic clusters of early-stage agricultural technology development in the Midwest include established public and private organizations that shape the environment for technology development, business development and entrepreneur/startup mentoring and support:

  • Des Moines/Ames, Iowa.
    • Multiple plant science agricultural business such as DuPont Pioneer and Stine Seed
    • Iowa State University – land grant public university.
    • Iowa State University Research Park – assistance and accessibility for early stage businesses
    • Iowa State University Agricultural Entrepreneurship Initiative – development program for agricultural entrepreneurs and agricultural innovation
    • Agriculture Startup Engine – investment platform for agtech startup businesses
    • Iowa AgriTech Accelerator – Mentor-driven business accelerator designed to foster innovation in the AgTech industry
    • Cultivation Corridor – Organization aiming to create a global center of excellence in agbioscience, biorenewables, biotech and advanced manufacturing
  • Omaha/Lincoln, Nebraska.
    • Home to agricultural businesses such as Green Plains Energy and Valmont
    • University of Nebraska – land grant public university
    • Nebraska Innovation Campus: support for early stage companies
    • Water for Food Institute – research institute for achieving food security with less pressure on water resources.
    • University of Nebraska Engler Agribusiness Entrepreneurship program – support and encourage entrepreneurship amongst students
  • Louis, Missouri.
    • Monsanto – plant science agricultural business
    • Bio-Research & Development Growth Park – bio-research facilities for emerging scientific enterprises
    • Danforth Plant Science Center – nonprofit scientific facility to increase understanding of plant biology
    • Yield Lab – agtech accelerator with a stated mission to sustainably increase the global food supply and reduce inputs to agricultural production and distribution
  • Twin Cities, Minnesota
    • University of Minnesota – land-grant public university
    • Home to agricultural and food businesses such as Cargill, General Mils, CHS, and Land O’Lakes.
    • Techstars Farm to Fork Accelerator – focused on the tech/digital side of food and agriculture from agtech, manufacturing and supply chains, to food safety, waste reduction and traceability.

Though agtech investing has risen significantly in the U.S. and entrepreneurial activity in the Midwest as evidenced by programs related to agtech has also increased, evidence of significantly higher venture capital funding in the Midwest is limited.

Venture deals in the United States have been most heavily concentrated in Silicon Valley, with up to 50 percent of total VC investment dollars in the country flowing to companies in northern California during some quarters. The Midwest remains underdeveloped relative to other parts of the United States in attracting venture capital funding. While venture capital invested in the Midwest rose from $1.8 billion in 2007 to $4.0 billion in 2017, this represented only 4.7% of the total in the U.S. in 2017, making the Midwest a poor performer in terms of per capita venture capital investing (National Venture Capital Association Data).

Early-stage business activity is difficult to track by its nature. Inventors, entrepreneurs, and investors advance projects without extensive public disclosure, and personal networks are an important means of communication and development. To provide a proxy for the state of early- stage agricultural innovation activity in the Midwest, an analysis was conducted of business plans developed by students at the Agricultural Entrepreneurship Initiative at Iowa State University compared to those tracked by AgFunder in 2016. The dataset offered here is a snapshot of early-stage business development activity, much of it related to agricultural technology.

AgTech Interst by Subsector

This analysis revealed a higher interest by ISU students in production agriculture oriented technologies than those tracked by AgFunder. Areas of activity such as animal health and management, decision support technologies, food science, energy efficiency, feed efficiency, sustainable production systems, environmental mitigation and manure management are more focused on the agricultural activities present in the Midwest.

Ecosystem Opportunities and Challenges

The common metaphor for fostering entrepreneurship as an economic development strategy is “ecosystem.” But what makes an ecosystem vibrant for entrepreneurial activity?

A Harvard Business Review article provided a true/false quiz on the topic (Isenberg 2014).

You know that you have a strong entrepreneurship ecosystem when there are more and more startups. FALSE

Offering financial incentives (e.g. angel investment tax credits) for early stage, risky investments in entrepreneurs clearly stimulates the entrepreneurship ecosystem. FALSE

In order to strengthen your regional entrepreneurship ecosystem, it is necessary to establish co-working spaces, incubators and the like. FALSE

According to entrepreneurs the top three challenges everywhere are access to talent, excessive bureaucracy, and scarce early stage capital. TRUE

Wanting a vibrant entrepreneurial ecosystem for agtech entrepreneurs in the Midwest and actually having one are different.

Specific challenges include the following.

  • Funding – The right money at the right time for each startup business is always a challenge. The good news is that there are many more sources for early-stage funds than 20 years ago. The popularity of shows such as Shark Tank has led to a proliferation of competitions that often have financial prizes, and is a cultural phenomenon that shouldn’t be discounted. There are pitch and business plan competitions, incubation and accelerator programs, a greater array of local and regional funds today than ever before.
  • Mentoring – Most startup success stories will also have stories about key mentors that provided key advice and perspective at key times.  Entrepreneurs break rules and make mistakes in an effort to drive their businesses forward. As with funding, mentoring programs are now much more common than 20 years ago. However, the most valuable mentors for entrepreneurs are entrepreneurs, and those can be difficult to find depending on where you live. For entrepreneurs working to build high-growth businesses, the best advice will come from those who have built their own high-growth businesses. But the number of individuals who have ‘done it’ is not high, especially in a region with lower population density.
  • Change-making culture – An element of support for entrepreneurs is cultural. A culture that is accepting of the risks and contrarian nature of new ideas is important. The friendly and egalitarian culture of the Midwest may at times be at odds with widespread celebration of entrepreneurial rule-breaking and risk-taking. There is an old saying in the Midwest that’s indicative of a culture that, at times, may not be conducive to entrepreneurs: “Nothing is punished in a small town like success.”
  • Agglomeration – Economists view agglomeration as an issue important in economic development in that firms and professionals from an industry are often located near to each other. This concept relates to the idea of economies of scale and network effects. As more firms in related fields of business cluster together, their costs of production may decline significantly (firms have competing multiple suppliers; bigger talent pool; greater specialization and division of labor result). Cities form and grow to exploit economies of agglomeration. But what about the Midwest and agriculture? By it’s nature, agriculture is spread out. The biggest concentration of agricultural production in the U.S. is in the middle of the continent while the highest populations densities are on the coasts. While it’s a good thing that cities and agriculture don’t on a large scale compete for land in the U.S., it also means that agricultural professionals and entrepreneurs don’t have the agglomeration affects of something like the tech industry in the Bay area of California.

On the other side of each of these challenges lie opportunities. Agtech investing and the popularization of it as a sector unto itself now results in websites, funds, conferences and other events that enable coordination, new relationships and other positive spillover affects.

For the agtech ecosystem in the Midwest to continue to become more vibrant three things are critical.

  1. Expose more young people to the concept that entrepreneurship is an option – Whether university programs or even high school programs, young people will benefit from being exposed to entrepreneurship. Fewer young people today grow up in families with farms and small businesses, so we need them to meet entrepreneurs and small business owners and have experiences that expose them to the idea that they can not only someday get a job, but also make a job.
  2. Continue to develop more forms of early-stage funding – The more sources of funding for early-stage startups, the richer array of startup businesses that will emerge. Competitive filters on funding, whether a pitch competition or review panels for government programs, are important not only to insure the best ideas rise to the top but also to institutionalize feedback loops. The more sources of early feedback for aspiring entrepreneurs, both positive and negative, the better off they will be.
  3. More Midwestern funds – The development of more professional funds in the region, whether angel, seed, venture, private equity, or whatever will benefit the region. Investors from one region and entrepreneurs from another can work sometimes, of course, but location matters. If there are more funds in the Midwest, there will be more investing in the Midwest.

Rural Vitality

Are there implications of agtech development for the economies in rural areas?

The adoption of agtech will result in a more productive and sustainable agriculture. The process of farm to fork will be more automated, connected, sensed, and traced. The ability to do and create new products, services and experiences will create opportunities that can work anywhere, including rural areas.

Will there be agtech startup businesses in rural areas? Yes. Agglomeration affects will still favor more urban environments for many agtech firms, but smaller towns that support entrepreneurs will result in startup activity. As one example, the Startup Factory program at Iowa State University has started to work with rural communities on running parallel programs for entrepreneurs in Ames and in those communities.

The most significant impact of entrepreneurs on rural economies, however, will come from Main Street businesses.   The entrepreneurs with high growth agtech businesses to have emerged from programs at the Iowa State University Agricultural Entrepreneurship Initiative are to be commended. But a much higher rate of new business formation and employment has come from the many alumni who have started a new livestock operation, crop farm, vegetable farm, seed business, trenching business, crop input supply business, etc. And many or most of these businesses are in rural areas. We estimate that twenty times more alumni have started these types of farms and businesses than have started higher risk/higher reward businesses.

A 2008 survey of Iowa State University alumni from 1982 to 2006 found that 15.8 percent had started at least one for-profit business (Jolly, Yu, Orazem, Kimle 2010). These businesses resulted in creation of 222,569 jobs. These companies had 2007 revenues of approximately $64 billion. For an indication of magnitude, note that Iowa gross domestic product was $135.7 billion in 2008.

Of the 222,569 jobs created at the businesses started by ISU alumni entrepreneurs, only 35,242 of those were created in the state of Iowa, 15.8 percent of the total. A higher proportion of total companies founded by alumni were located in Iowa (35 percent), but those businesses located outside Iowa had more jobs created per enterprise. Large metropolitan areas both in the Midwest (Minneapolis, Chicago, St. Louis, Kansas City) and outside the Midwest (Phoenix, Los Angeles, Dallas, Seattle, San Francisco) recorded multiple alumni starting businesses. A alumni base that was greater than 75 percent from the state of Iowa created 84 percent of jobs outside the state of Iowa.

There are likely multiple explanations for this. The top response for business location in the survey was ‘where I lived’ (82 percent ranking it as very important) indicating that alumni had already moved away from Iowa to pursue their careers when they started their entrepreneurial ventures. Rather than move back to their native state of Iowa, they located their business where they lived currently and had built their post-undergraduate career and lives. The first business start for alumni was on average 10 years after graduation.

The founding of entrepreneurial ventures by ISU alumni outside the state of Iowa may signify the ‘brain drain’ problem long cited in the Midwest. But the graduation period for this survey group, 1982 to 2006, had an extended period of economic distress in agriculture and other Iowa industries. Job opportunities for ISU graduates were outside of the state and even region and they settled and started their businesses elsewhere.

Will a future survey of 2007 to 2031 graduates show similar results? Preliminary indications are that no, a higher proportion of entrepreneurial activity will occur in Iowa and the Midwest. Certainly the attractiveness of a career in agriculture in 2018 compared to 1988 is higher based on enrollment at Colleges of Agriculture at Iowa State University and other universities also. More young people seeking careers in agriculture is likely positive for rural areas. 66.6 percent of 2015/16 ISU College of Agriculture and Life Sciences graduates, for example, accepted their first jobs in the state of Iowa.

More programs, competitions, and cultural celebrations of entrepreneurship are also positive for the economies of rural areas.

Shark tanks can work anywhere.

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References

Isenberg, Daniel. “What an Entrepreneurship Ecosystem Actually Is.” Harvard Business Review. May 12, 2014.

Jolly, Robert W., Li Yu, Peter F. Orazem, and Kevin Kimle. “Entrepreneurship and higher education: an overview of the Iowa State University alumni survey.” (2010).

Schulman, Katherine. “Agtech in the Midwest: Creating Fertile ground For the Next Unicorn.” M25 Group. 2017.

Article of the Day

AgTech Mid-Year Investing Report – 2016 – AgFunder

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Seed stage investment continues to drive agtech investment, representing 52% of deals recorded. The total size of seed stage investments grew with 159 seed stage deals raising $104 million in H1-2016 compared to 260 deals raising $130 million for all of 2015.
~ AgFunder

Student Ag Entrepreneur Business Concepts by Subsector

Visitors to the Agricultural Entrepreneurship Initiative ask me what businesses student ag entrepreneurs are most interested in.  One way to answer the question is to look at business concepts students create for the entrepreneurship course I teach at Iowa State University, Entrepreneurship in Agriculture.

Two week’s ago, students in the course pitched their favorite of the 2 or 3 new business ideas they’ve developed in the course.  I went through the list of business concepts and categorized them by subsector.  I use subsector definitions from the AgFunder report on AgTech investment activity.

Alternative Protein – These companies look to replace traditional sources of protein such as meat and eggs. Companies fall into three categories: cellular agriculture; ingredient innovation; and the production and discovery of alternate protein sources, such as crickets or algae.

Animal Health & Nutrition – Companies that identify agricultural livestock or farming of aquatic organisms as a key market.

Bioenergy – Companies producing energy made from materials derived from biological sources.

Biomaterials & Biochemicals – This includes companies using biological material to produce/farm: peptides, bioplastics, non-ag inputs, microorganisms, pharmaceuticals, microbes and algae, functional ingredients/nutrients/phytoceuticals.

Cannabis Technology – Companies developing technologies for the emerging legal cannabis and hemp markets.

Decision Support Tech – This is our primarily software-focused category. It includes but is not limited to precision agriculture technologies. It includes satellite data companies, big data, and ERP technologies. Excludes companies categorized under drones & robotics, and smart equipment & hardware, and irrigation & watertech.

Drones & Robotics – Companies that are building drones or robotic technologies which have self-identified food or agriculture as a key market.

Farm-2-Consumer – Companies that directly deliver food to consumers from farms, differing from food e-commerce, which involves e-grocers, meal kit delivery services, and specialist meal delivery.

Food E-Commerce – E-grocers, meal kit delivery, and specialist meal services which are attempting to disrupt the agriculture value chain. Excludes restaurant delivery.

Food Tech – A broad category including food processing, food enhancing technology (e.g. flavor or nutritional value), packaging, food analysis.

Food Safety & Traceability –  Includes all companies attempting to track food production, food sterilization or introducing technologies that reduce the risk of food safety concerns.

Indoor Agriculture – Includes all farming operations that occur indoors or in greenhouses, and the technologies that accompany them. It does not include Cannabis-related tech, which is spun out into its own category.

Irrigation & Watertech – Includes all technologies involving the management of water for agriculture. Some precision irrigation companies could technically fall into smart equipment or decision support tech, but we felt that this categorization would be more informative.

Smart Equipment & Hardware – Predominantly includes sensor technology, Internet of Things (IoT), and other non-robotic machinery in the food and agriculture value chain.

Soil & Crop Technology – Includes: biological inputs and treatments, chemical inputs, genetics–based tech, new crops, seed technology.

Waste tech –  Includes products made out of food waste, wastewater treatment for agriculture, and agriculture or food waste mitigation technologies.

 

Student Business Proposals By Category
Entrepreneurship in Agriculture Course
Fall 2016 Semester, 94 Students

Category                                                                        Percentage
Alternative Protein                                                             0%
Animal Health & Nutrition                                              11%
Bioenergy                                                                              0%
Biomaterials & Biochemicals                                            3%
Cannabis Technology                                                         1%
Decision Support Tech                                                      9%
Drones & Robotics                                                             5%
Farm-2-Consumer                                                            15%
Food E-Commerce                                                             0%
Food Tech                                                                            0%
Food Safety & Traceability                                               0%
Indoor Agriculture                                                             5%
Irrigation & Watertech                                                     0%
Smart Equipment & Hardware                                       5%
Soil & Crop Technology                                                    0%
Waste Tech                                                                          0%

Non-Technology Agriculture                                         20%
Non-Agriculture                                                                15%
Social Impact                                                                       8%

I work the students through various exercises to see if we can identify new business ideas that come from something unique to their experiences or observations.  In particular, many of their ideas come from:

  1. A problem they’ve noticed or experienced that others haven’t noticed.
  2. An experiment, accident of circumstance, or heritage activity from their past.
  3. A personal passion and interest.

57 percent of student ideas were related to agricultural technology, 77 percent in total related to agriculture.  Most, but not all, students are agriculture majors at ISU and/or have backgrounds in agricultural production, so probably not surprising as to their interests.

The top category in the AgFunder report linked to above for 2016 investments was Food Commerce, a category ignored by students.

What categories of student business plan or investment will be the most attractive when we look back ten or twenty years from now?  I suspect certain themes will run through winning businesses.  To suggest a several:

  • Time/labor saving technology – It’s an old story in agriculture, but technologies that save labor win in the long-run.  Robotics offers a myriad of potential applications to take labor out of various processes in agriculture.
  • Unique food ingredients and products – Consumer interest in food products with a story will continue to grow. Where was it grown?  How was it grown?  What makes it different?  What experiences are coupled with the food?
  • Data at the right time and place – We have a lot of data in agriculture today.  The question is what to do with it. Technologies, services, models, and algorithms that enable decision making at points in time where those decisions make a difference in outcomes will win.
  • Disruptive economic models – New technologies and accompanying business model innovations enable challenges to existing supply chains and logistics models.  Some may create significant changes in unit economics for production of certain agricultural products /commodities which will drive changes in place of production and logistics of product movement.

What are the most interesting categories of future business opportunities for you?  Why?

Article of the Day

The Future of Agriculture – Economist

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The seafood counter historically is the only place in the grocery store where we have been hunting and gathering, and that is rapidly changing to a farmed environment. And with the interest in local and domestic production, sustainability, and carbon footprint, the emphasis is now on producing more seafood here in the U.S.
~ Joe Hankins –  Director, Freshwater Institute

Six Reasons Salmon Production in Iowa is Interesting

I am part of a startup business, Inland Sea, that in September publicized for the first time an intention to build a recirculating aquaculture system facility to produce salmon in Iowa, specifically a site in Harlan.  With a two-acre footprint, this large-scale, bio-secure and efficient facility will result in weekly harvest of approximately 100,000 pounds of salmon, 5.3 million pounds annually.

ras-tank-renderingRendering of Salmon Production Tank ~150 feet in Diameter

We believe indoor fish production is the emerging frontier of aquaculture and the most promising systems to emerge for indoor, efficient production are recirculating aquaculture systems (RAS), and it’s been interesting for the last month to get a deeper sense of other people’s thinking on the topic.  As we’ve conducted a series of public meetings about the Inland Sea-Harlan project, a sense of people’s interest in the project has emerged based on the questions they ask.

A common question to the Inland Sea team, however, is why we became interested in this opportunity.  The top six include the following.

  1. The technology model has been proven elsewhere – Multiple RAS salmon production facilities are currently operational in Europe. These European RASs have demonstrated capability as environmentally sustainable and scalable, with the ability to guarantee both the safety and the quality of the fish produced.
  2. Competitive unit economics – The economics of aquaculture starts with feed conversion. One advantage fish have over land animals is feed conversion. Fish need fewer calories, because they’re cold-blooded and due to living in a buoyant environment, they don’t fight gravity as much. It takes roughly a pound of feed to produce a pound of farmed fish; it takes almost two pounds of feed to produce a pound of chicken, about three for a pound of pork, and about seven for a pound of beef. The salmon produced in a model facility in Denmark has demonstrated a feed conversion ratio of approximately 1.10.
  3. Salmon consumption has upside potential – U.S. salmon demand grew rapidly in the 1990s, and has been relatively flat since because of higher prices and constrained supplies. Salmon passed tuna as the second highest consumed seafood in the U.S. in 2013, coming in at 2.7 pounds per capita compared to 3.6 pounds for shrimp and 2.3 pounds for tuna. In addition, salmon is the only seafood consumed primarily as a premium product rather than frozen or canned.  A one pound uptick per capital in U.S. salmon consumption would require about 60 Harlan facilities worth of production to fill.
  4. The next model of salmon production – Due to biological constraints, seawater temperature requirements and other natural constraints, seaside farmed salmon is primarily produced in Norway, Chile, UK, North America, Faroe Islands, Ireland, and New Zealand/ Tasmania. Seaside salmon aquaculture production has reached a level where biological boundaries are being pushed. The Chilean industry, for example, has had significant struggles with disease, sea lice, and algal blooms in recent years. In addition, seaside salmon aquaculture production can occur only in a few areas globally because of water temperature and there is little upside production potential remaining. Future production growth of any significance will need to come from RAS systems.
  5. A fantastic food – A good aim for a food business is to make a fantastic product, and salmon from RAS production fits the bill with great texture, taste and nutrition profile.  And, of course, fresher is better.  Salmon has been termed by nutritionists as a superfood for its health impact. It is one of the best sources of omega-3 fatty acids, particularly EPA and DHA, which are nature’s heart medicines.
  6. Iowa and aquaculture are a fit – The major input for salmon, like any animal protein, is feed. Iowa is one of the lowest cost feed ingredient locations in the world. Another major input for RAS salmon is electricity, and Iowa has one of the lowest kWh prices in the nation. Finally, the salmon you eat in the Midwest travels approximately 4,000 miles from Norway or approximately 5,500 miles from Chile. We anticipate that salmon production in Iowa will have an out-of-the gate transportation cost advantage of approximately $0.50 to $1.00, aside from a freshness advantage.

We know other agricultural entrepreneurs working on aquaculture projects, driven by similar reasons to ours at Inland Sea.  But what other opportunities may be driven by one or more reasons similar to the above?  What opportunities are there for other proteins?  How might technologies deployed in RAS systems (sensors, water treatment, precision feeding, biological controls) be deployed for agricultural production beyond fish?  What opportunities for entrepreneur may emerge as new industries emerge in new areas?

Article of the Day

Why Grass-Fed Beef is on a Roll – Wall Street Journal

Supermarkets Make Stars Out of Weird Apples, Knobbled Carrots and ‘Spuglies’ – Wall Street Journal

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This magical, marvelous food on our plate, this sustenance we absorb, has a story to tell. It has a journey. It leaves a footprint. It leaves a legacy. To eat with reckless abandon, without conscience, without knowledge; folks, this ain’t normal.
~ Joel Salatin, farmer and author of Folks, This Ain’t Normal; You Can Farm

Food as a Lifestyle Purchase

A megatrend I see underlying change in agriculture and the food industry is a switch from food purchases for taste and convenience to a lifestyle item.  This megatrend expresses itself in all kinds of ways, but it presents both challenges and opportunities to agricultural entrepreneurs.  The ugly fruit and vegetable campaign, growth in grass-fed beef, the bigger organic aisle at your grocery store, local food fans.  All these are indications of changes in U.S. food markets that are being driven by our customers.

megatrend-food-as-a-lifestyle-purchase

Case – Whole Foods. Whole Foods Market Inc. is the grocery store chain featuring foods without artificial preservatives, colors, flavors, sweeteners, and hydrogenated fats.  It is the United States’ first certified organic grocer.  It started in 1980 in Austin, Texas and now has more than 400 stores and 90,000 employees. On a trip to Austin last summer, I spent three hours in the first Whole Foods store.  I talked with staff and customers and checked out products and produce.  Austin is certainly not Ames from a cultural perspective, but I came from that tour with an even stronger sense of the underlying shifts in consumer preferences for food. Consumers interest in the health characteristics, production methods, source, and environment impact of what they eat is increasing, and it’s not a fad that will run its course.   You may or may not be a fan of items in the organic aisle, but its become almost 4 percent of U.S. food purchases, approaching a $40 billion market.

fruitsandvegetablesorganicdemand

Case – Sawmill Hollow Family Farms. Sawmill Hollow Family Farms in western Iowa is a great example of a farm-to-table business riding the megatrend wave.  Andrew Pittz pioneered growing aronia berries, a native superfood with polyphonolic compounds, including: antioxidants, anthocyanins, resveratrol, proanthocyanins, now considered to be one of the most nutritionally dense fruits on the planet. He evangelized the products made from aronia berries, and has forged a place in the market for a growing array of superfood products.  From an entrepreneurial perspective, consider the boxes he’s checked in developing his business.  Crop/product with an intriguing story – check.  Product traceable to farm – check. Product with unique and marketable nutrition and health traits – check.

Case – Blue Apron.  Blue Apron is a meal kit business founded in 2012 that now delivers more than 5 million meals monthly.  Blue Apron’s approach, the meal kit, offers the convenience of delivery while keeping home cooks in the kitchen. The precisely portioned dinners minimize waste and allow consumers to try ingredients they might not otherwise buy, at a price they’d have trouble matching–roughly $10 per meal per person.  And many of the ingredients are sourced directly from farms.  Is this sort of service just for people in cities?  I heard about Blue Apron from a student who’s parents live in rural Iowa.  Both are busy so they enjoyed the convenience, the quality of the ingredients and meals, and the introduction to new food ideas.

What does food as a lifestyle purchase mean for opportunities for agricultural entrepreneurs?  That’s difficult to forecast, but it’s safe to say that there has never been a better time for the imagination of entrepreneurs to define the future of food and agriculture.  Emergent sweet spots will continue to emerge for entrepreneurs who can reduce transportation costs, have fewer levels between farm and consumer, and create novel products and experiences.

What opportunities do you find most interesting that may be driven by tomorrow’s food consumers?  How will those opportunities shape agriculture and the food industry?

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