By Kevin Robinson-Avila / Tech Bytes
Monday, February 27th, 2017
New Mexico State University is sowing the seeds for a lot more innovative agricultural technology to find its way to market.
The Arrowhead Center, which manages all of NMSU’s technology transfer programs, launched its newest business accelerator this month, AgSprint, to help anyone wanting to commercialize new ag-related technologies in New Mexico and elsewhere. The program will offer one-on-one mentoring, coaching and networking opportunities in a five-month, intensive process for up to 10 innovators starting April 13.
It’s the state’s first agriculturally focused business accelerator, said Arrowhead Technology Incubator director Zetdi Sloan.
“Given all the technology research and development at NMSU, and the increased interest and investment in agricultural technology worldwide, we decided to launch a program specifically focused on that,” Sloan said.
The program accepts a broad range of innovation in everything from animal health and nutrition to bioenergy, soil and crop technology, drones and robotics, and innovations in food technology, safety and traceability.
“Ag tech applicants can run the gamut from basic business operations – reducing paperwork, improving productivity and enabling e-commerce – to specialities such as drone and robotic technology for overseeing fields, moisture levels, pesticide and fertilizer usage, and equipment,” Sloan seed.
More typical ag-related innovation is just as welcome, such as new seed varieties or methods for predicting crop yields and commodity prices.
Unlike other business accelerators that provide uniform teaching and mentoring in basic business operations and fast paths to market, AgSprint will offer a customized curriculum that focuses on the specific needs of participants. That will allow it to accept applicants at all stages of development.
“We have a stage-agnostic approach to provide customized programming for each applicant,” Sloan said. “We expect about half the participants to be at a very early stage and the other half at more advanced stages. That’s why we’re accepting only up to 10 participants – because the program is so hands-on and customized.”
And it’s not limited to New Mexico. The accelerator will accept applicants from other states, and even other countries.
“The program is available to all entrepreneurs, no matter where they are,” said Todd Bisio, a serial entrepreneur in Albuquerque and program consultant. “We want to find innovators and business leaders from across the state and beyond.”
Attracting innovators from out of state could bring more entrepreneurial activity to New Mexico, Sloan said.
“We expect them to have ongoing relationships with our laboratories and experts,” she said. “Hopefully, they’ll assemble business development teams here.”
That broad approach is a good fit for the state’s land grant university, which manages New Mexico’s Cooperative Extension Service for on-site, agriculture-related education and assistance in every county around the state. NMSU’s College of Agriculture, Consumer and Environmental Sciences also operates 12 agricultural science centers across New Mexico through the university-run Agricultural Experiment Station.
Of course, NMSU hopes the program will help guide more of its own technology and innovation to market, said Terry Lombard, Arrowhead director of intellectual property and technology transfer.
“All the technologies coming out of NMSU can be licensed for commercialization through AgSprint, even for a trial period to decide afterwards if they want to pursue it,” Lombard said. “We hope that people will see all the exciting technologies available at NMSU, and license them to build companies and take them to market.”
The university is continually developing new, potentially marketable innovation in agricultural crops, water, energy and ag-related equipment. It’s already commercializing things such as organic pesticides and fertilizers, machines to better grow and harvest chile, and algae-based biofuels.
AgSprint is financed with federal grants received by Arrowhead from the U.S. Commerce Department’s Economic Development Administration and from sources such as the National Science Foundation’s Innovation Corps program.
Arrowhead received a $300,000 NSF award last year to become an iCorps program site, allowing it to provide grants of up to $2,000 each for 30 startups annually. Each AgSprint participant will receive a $2,000 grant at the start of the program. After graduating from the accelerator, they become eligible to apply for up to $50,000 in iCorps program grants.
Some funds from a $200,000 grant that Arrowhead received last December from Emera Inc., the Canadian firm that acquired the New Mexico Gas Co. last summer, is also helping. Those funds will allow AgSprint to offer up to three micro-grants of up to $650 each for every AgSprint participant to help cover business development expenses, such as hiring patent attorneys, website developers or technical writers, Sloan said.
Accelerator participants will also gain access to a broad network of mentors, business consultants, industry partners, technical assistance programs, grant and debt financiers, and investors. That includes eligibility to apply for investment from the new Arrowhead Innovation Fund, established last year with money from the NMSU Foundation and private investors to offer $50,000 to $150,000 in seed funding to startups connected to Arrowhead and the university.
Applications for the first AgSprint cohort will be accepted through March 10. For more information, visit arrowheadcenter.nmsu.edu/agsprint.