Though agriculture is arguably the oldest industry around, it has taken a while for it to get reshaped by some of the new, digital information tools that are transforming other lines of work.
But in some cases, old ways of doing things on the farm are changing. Sensor technology can report hyper-detailed field conditions to reveal opportunities for more efficient use of water and chemical inputs. Or, instead of checking limited patches of a field for pest insects in person, drones can now get a sweeping view of insect pressure from above.
Those and other innovations are now accelerating thanks to new tech-focused investment finding its way into the agriculture industry — and into the St. Louis area, which local leaders tout as home to the largest concentration of plant science Ph.D. holders in the world.
A fresh example of that “agtech” investment materialized this week, when BioSTL — a nonprofit organization that works to advance bioscience in the area — landed a $100,000 grant from the Wells Fargo Innovation Incubator. Paired with an earlier contribution of $196,000 from the state-run Missouri Technology Corporation, the gift will help launch the Early Adopter Grower Innovation Community program, designed to link emerging agtech companies directly with Missouri farmers as they push to bring new products to market.
The partnership will call upon farmers to “test, validate and provide valuable feedback on innovative solutions that meet their needs, on their land,” according to an announcement from BioSTL.
Until now, farmers have mostly “had innovations pushed onto them instead of being a part of that innovation,” said Maggie Crane, the communications director for BioSTL. This program aims to change that.
“Really it’s about accelerating innovation with farmers in the middle,” Crane said. “If (companies) are at the step of trying to get into a field, we can say, ‘We’ve got the field for you.’”
While the farmers involved with the program’s product trials would be from Missouri, specific individuals have yet to be identified.
The program is expected to emphasize various applications of digital technology on the farm, but will also be left “a little open-ended” to accommodate a range of ideas, said Ramsay Huntley, a clean technology and innovation philanthropy program officer with Wells Fargo.
Unlike other startup incubator programs that make funding and technical expertise available to groups of entrepreneurs, Crane said this one is “not designed to be a competition.”
The Wells Fargo incubator program is hosted and co-administered by the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, in Golden, Colo. Select startup companies will have access to resources and technical expertise at NREL, as well as the Donald Danforth Plant Science Center research facility in Creve Coeur. The Danforth Center marks the first Wells Fargo partner to expand the company’s incubator program into the realm of agriculture.
Trish Cozart, the IN² program coordinator with NREL, said that it’s also a new space for NREL to explore.
“This is the first foray I’d say that we’ve gone into crops and yield and production,” she said.
Cozart anticipates that most companies and ideas within the program will be in the prototype stage, where NREL can help with required product testing and “technological validation” that startups would not be able to replicate on their own.
Looking forward to the work ahead, both she and Huntley suggested that there’s tremendous potential to usher new, beneficial technologies into the agricultural space.
“We’re very excited to be working with BioSTL and our partners here,” said Huntley. “I think there’s a real opportunity here to expand into agriculture.”