Date: 07/17/2017 | Writer: Amanda Bradford
A New Mexico-based agricultural technology company is working to solve a global food problem at the local level with support from the AgSprint accelerator program at New Mexico State University’s Arrowhead Center entrepreneurship and innovation hub.
Founded in 2016, Revolution Agriculture is a veteran-owned business based in Albuquerque that creates closed-system organic farms. The modular farms produce eight times the yield per square foot and run 100 percent on renewable energy, using 90 percent less water, said founder and CEO Richard Brion. The farms can eventually sell produce to retailers, targeting the estimated $161 billion in nationwide unmet demand for local, organic produce.
Brion, a U.S. Navy veteran and business development strategist who also teaches business courses at Southern New Hampshire University, brought Revolution Agriculture to NMSU’s AgSprint accelerator as entrepreneurial lead. His team includes COO and technical lead James Kaminsky, a U.S. Marine Corps veteran who is a marketing and operations executive based in Albuquerque, and business mentor Michael Eberhardt, head of global talent acquisition at Hyperloop Transportation Technologies, Inc.
Earlier this year, Revolution Agriculture was the only U.S.-based startup out of more than 50 companies to participate in the finals of the Global Entrepreneurship Congress Future Agro Challenge in Johannesburg, South Africa. Brion, whose work over the past 15 years has taken him throughout Africa and the Middle East, said the experience at the Future Agro Challenge gave him added perspective on how other companies around the world are tackling the problem of food insecurity and corporate sustainability.
“When I got down to talking to the capital companies down there, even some of the commercial African banks, the first question out of their mouths after you tell them what you’re working on is ‘How do you see the social impact? What’s your social currency? How much are you going to improve the economic capacity within the region?’” he said.
That resonates with Brion’s own philosophy on the importance of social responsibility – it’s the driving force behind his desire to work with tribal governments in New Mexico to implement Revolution Agriculture’s systems locally, as a means for rural communities to improve access to nutritious food and create economic opportunities for workers without the need for high-tech training.
The Dreaming New Mexico Foundation recently released a study which found that New Mexico sells about $2.5 billion in agricultural goods per year – 80 percent of which comes from exports of dairy products and cattle or from sales of the grains to support these animals. With Revolution Agriculture systems placed in New Mexico, Brion said, a desert state with a continuing drought problem and issues of water access could actually become a net exporter of clean produce.
The patent-pending modular farms require fewer labor hours than a traditional farm and can be placed virtually anywhere – including arid locations – increasing access to food, even in remote areas or logistical deserts.
“We’re talking about a population in the middle of the United States that is actually more food insecure than some African countries,” he said. “We’re talking about being able to turn an economically depressed area with limited access to good jobs into a net exporter of food products while also supplying themselves. We’re starting to solve a global food problem by first propping up a community around it.”
Revolution Agriculture was one of six teams – five from New Mexico and one from Colorado – that were selected for AgSprint, a five-month venture-builder program designed to support innovation in agriculture by connecting entrepreneurs to financing, demonstration and validation partners, academic faculty, corporate partners and other resources.
The program’s first five weeks followed the I-Corps model that tests the feasibility of the venture. I-Corps is a National Science Foundation initiative to leverage university research to create new innovative businesses and increase the economic impact of inventions created at research institutions around the country. NMSU is one of only 51 academic institutions nationwide to be selected as an I-Corps Site.
“The customer development portion was interesting,” Brion said, “because with our backgrounds, customer development is something we’ve done for years. Between me and the COO, we’ve helped businesses grow over $1.6 billion in revenue. But through the interview process, we ended up both significantly reinforcing the positions we came into the program with and even identifying a couple of opportunities that we missed from a marketspace perspective.”
Graduates of the AgSprint accelerator received $2,000 and the necessary National Science Foundation lineage to apply for the $50,000 national I-Corps program. Additionally, participants are eligible to apply for investment from the Arrowhead Innovation Fund, a venture capital fund focused on seed and early-stage funding for NMSU- and Arrowhead Center-affiliated projects.
For Brion, one of the main goals of participating in AgSprint was to develop connections and partnerships with researchers at NMSU.
“A lot of our novel intellectual property has to do with connecting existing technologies in an agricultural space,” he said. “The relationship is helpful because when you start talking to investors about any type of agricultural science, having the credibility of a research university attached is extremely helpful. New Mexico State is a leader for agricultural technology.”
The benefit of that relationship goes both ways, said AgSprint Program Manager and Arrowhead Technology Incubator Director Zetdi Sloan.
“These connections can lead to new research and validation opportunities for NMSU’s faculty and graduate students,” Sloan said. “NMSU researchers are working directly with people in the industry who are on the cutting edge of developing and commercializing new technologies. It’s a great pipeline for both sides of the partnership.”
On Aug. 10, Revolution Agriculture and the other AgSprint participants will converge on the New Mexico Farm & Ranch Heritage Museum near NMSU for the program’s culminating AgSprint Assembly event. AgSprint Assembly will bring together a group of productive ag-market leaders to talk about demands from the frontlines, how to translate ideas from vision to reality, and the future of agricultural technology investment.
AgSprint startup companies will also take the stage to showcase their products and services, and engage with their corporate and funding peers in a one-on-one format. AgSprint Assembly is open to the public and registration is $35, which includes lunch. More information and registration link can be found at arrowheadcenter.nmsu.edu/agassembly.
Funding for AgSprint is provided by the U.S. Economic Development Administration University Center program and New Mexico Gas Company.