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AgTech Accelerator Aims to Sway Agriculture Investment Trends

Xconomy Raleigh-Durham — 

Agriculture and food-related companies make up a global industry, but when it comes to seeding startups in the sector, agricultural technologies face a relative funding famine.

AgTech Accelerator, a new startup program launched Thursday in Research Triangle Park, NC, is trying to address funding issues facing agtech companies, while also providing some of the business support and infrastructure that these young companies need to grow. The accelerator is starting with an $11.5 million investment from global agribusiness companies and life science investors, and includes partnerships with leading academic institutions across the country. John Dombrosky, CEO of the new accelerator, says that investment could balloon to more than $30 million by the end of this year as AgTech Accelerator adds new partners.

U.S.-based agtech startups attracted $2.2 billion in 2015 investments, according to AgFunder, an investment platform that connects investors with agriculture technologies. Globally, AgFunder tallied $4.6 billion invested in 526 deals. While that sum was nearly double the agtech investment from 2014, it’s still small potatoes compared with tech and biotech investments. Last year, software accounted for $23.6 billion invested in 1,736 deals in the U.S., according to the annual MoneyTree Report, which PricewaterhouseCoopers and the National Venture Capital Association compile using Thomson Reuters data. Meanwhile, biotech generated $7.4 billion invested in 475 U.S. deals, according to MoneyTree data.

Dombrosky says the relative dearth of capital in agtech leaves a lot of promising technologies sitting on the shelf. “In ag, it’s probably as hard, or maybe even harder to build early-stage technologies,” he says.

AgTech Accelerator plans to work with technologies coming from seven universities it has identified as partners: Duke University; NC State University; the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill; Pennsylvania State University; Purdue University; University of California, Davis; and Washington State University. Dombrosky won’t be scoping out licensing opportunities from these schools. Instead, he says AgTech Accelerator will develop relationships with university researchers to keep tabs on their research. Dombrosky says AgTech Accelerator will look for the commercial opportunities that university researchers might not see. Those opportunities could include taking a technology being developed for one particular crop and applying it to another, or adapting a human health technology for use in animals. When AgTech Accelerator identifies a commercial path, that technology will join the accelerator.

Despite its name, AgTech Accelerator won’t function the same way that many tech-startup accelerators do. Many people think of accelerators as programs that enroll a class of entrepreneurs who are placed on a path to grow their startups in size and value over a period of months, Dombrosky says. Upon graduation from the accelerator, these startups are typically ready to raise money (if they’re not already).

Agriculture doesn’t have any programs that operate this way, and AgTech Accelerator won’t try to emulate that model, Dombrosky says. Instead, AgTech Accelerator will operate much like Accelerator Corp., a venture capital-backed firm that invests in and supports life sciences startups and is now also a partner to the new agtech effort. Accelerator launched in Seattle in 2003 and expanded to New York in 2014, offering a model of identifying and financing promising life-science technologies. Dombrosky says AgTech Accelerator will address the specialized needs of agtech companies, providing the office, laboratory, and greenhouse space suited to agricultural R&D, while also providing management to handle the business side of the technology. Unlike most IT accelerators, AgTech Accelerator won’t have a set time for companies to develop and graduate.

AgTech Accelerator is taking a broad view of the kinds of technologies it will work with. Dombrosky says that the technologies could be … Next Page »

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