Agriculture insight: Major players nurture innovation by supporting startups

(BPT) – Environmental pressures like drought confront growers across the globe, and they can exacerbate the many other demands growers face. The challenges are intertwined, coming from every direction, including profitability requirements, food-supply-chain demands and nutrient shortages.

“Across the industry, growers will have adapt to deal with those growing pressures,” says Colin Steen, who heads up operations for Syngenta Ventures, one of the world’s first venture capital groups dedicated to agriculture.

Members of the research and development group at the organization identified Sound Agriculture as a promising new startup based out of the San Francisco Bay Area. Their mission: to create a suite of products that mitigate drought stress, decrease fertilizer needs and increase crop yields.

“Sound Agriculture was looking at a common problem from a new angle,” Steen says. “They were discovering new products that could be tools for enhancing yield and resilience. We invested in them last year and have been very pleased with their progress.”

Investing for long-term results

Today, Sound Agriculture is one of more than 15 companies in Syngenta Ventures’ portfolio. There’s no one-size-fits-all formula for the ideal investment. It’s more about casting a broad net and finding companies that share the vision for making growers’ farms more sustainable and more profitable, which is viewed as a long-term partnership.

AgriMetis — a Syngenta Ventures’ portfolio company in Maryland — which develops natural products to protect crops from weeds, diseases and insects, is another example. “AgriMetis needed a little help developing its testing capabilities and our R&D group stepped in,” Steen says.

He collaborates with a team of seven professionals in the U.S. and Europe. Their talents, he says, reflect three pillars of a successful venture ag-focused group. First, the group must understand what’s happening on the farm. “That’s the key. We have to understand the stresses growers face so we can look ahead for solutions,” he says.

Second, technical expertise is essential. “The driving force for many companies we evaluate is novel technology,” Steen says. “The best way to build relationships is to speak the same language.”

Finally, Steen says that a good venture capital team must be savvy enough to make commitments and decisions that play over a long time period, often more than 5 years. Making good decisions today requires understanding future challenges.

The future of ag technology

“The ag-technology sector has completely changed and thrived in just the past 10 years,” Steen says.

Satellite imagery and drones, for example, felt like the stuff of sci-fi novels just a decade ago, but now they’re common sights in ag offices and fields across the world. One portfolio company, Phytech, draws on spatial imaging, hyperlocal climate information and agronomic modeling to help farmers improve their profitability.

“Helping to develop successful companies directly impacts the agriculture industry,” Steen says. “Our core mission is to help create new tools to make growers more profitable. For us, it’s all about the collaboration to maximize that success.”

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