Great Lakes Ag Tech Business Incubator Seeks Farmer-Entrepreneurs

Michigan is the second-most agriculturally diverse state in the nation after California, producing everything from blueberries to black beans to begonias. Now, organizers of a new startup accelerator want to add ag-tech software and equipment to that bounty.

Called the Great Lakes Ag Technology Business Incubator, the non-profit program will be overseen by officials from Ottawa County, on Michigan’s west side. The goal of the incubator is to help farmers and entrepreneurs turn their ag-tech ideas into successful businesses. The incubator’s services will include product validation, patent assistance, market and consumer acquisition, help with regulatory permits, developing business plans, connecting entrepreneurs to suppliers, and assembling management teams.

“Agriculture is changing so much,” says Paul Sachs, Ottawa County’s assistant director of planning and performance improvement. “Farmers are becoming tech-savvy, especially the younger generations. I just talked to a potential incubator client who is developing new technology to help the family farm, and you hear that a lot. There’s always someone with an idea to help ag production.”

Sachs says the very nature of agricultural work—where farmers must be self-starters who can constantly innovate and solve problems on the fly—cultivates many of the qualities that are needed to be a successful entrepreneur.

The incubator project came together after Ottawa County’s board of commissioners surveyed residents to find out what they wanted from county officials. A more active role in economic development and job creation was the most popular answer, so county officials began brainstorming how they might do that without duplicating other state or regional efforts.

Ottawa County then partnered with the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which allocated a grant for a feasibility study that verified there were a significant number of entrepreneurs in the region with agricultural technology ideas who needed assistance to develop those ideas into startups.

“We started to look at the business incubator concept,” Sachs says. County officials debated whether to pursue the traditional accelerator model, where a cohort of startup founders begin at the same time, embark on a months-long training and development program under one roof, and, upon completion, are offered the chance to pitch investors.

Ottawa County tweaked that model and came up with something called a “garage incubator,” in which the county doesn’t provide a physical space, but instead devotes its resources to staff that can intensely mentor the incubator tenants and help them get their products to market. If space is needed for meetings, storage space, or other reasons, the county will broker deals with local landlords on a case-by-case basis. Sachs says he believes this is the first incubator of its kind nationally.

Private-sector sponsors—which include the Ottawa County Farm Bureau; West Michigan Community Bank; Consumers Energy; Rehmann; Warner Norcross & Judd; the Watson Intellectual Property Group; and BizStream—will provide cash contributions and discounted services.

“The headquarters of the incubator is in the county building, where we’ll strategize and work on pilot projects,” Sachs says. “Incubator clients meet with us face-to-face, and we help them work through the issues they’re dealing with. From there, we stay in contact by phone and e-mail as needed.”

Also unique is the funding structure to sustain the Great Lakes Ag Technology Business Incubator. It was initially funded through a $500,000 line item in the state … Next Page »

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Sarah Schmid Stevenson is the editor of Xconomy Detroit/Ann Arbor. You can reach her at 313-570-9823 or sschmid@xconomy.com. Follow @XconomyDET_AA

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