Just because agriculture has been part of human civilization for more than 5000 years doesn't mean there's nothing new under the sun. University agricultural programs are increasingly developing cross-disciplinary ties with science, engineering and business schools to foster real "grass-roots" entrepreneurship in the primary economy.
Amid a field of competitors with sexier, trendier business models (travel-based social networks, e-commerce solutions for cash-based economies) and mind-blowing technical innovation (literally in the case of Aqueduct Neurosciences, purveyor of a new style shunt for certain brain conditions), the agribusiness entrepreneurs stood out like a faded work shirt in a room full of Armani suits. And not in a bad way.
Their presence, number, and quality come as no surprise. East of the Cascade mountains and the Seattle-Bellevue-Redmond techopolis, Washington is a rural state. The wheat growers of Wenatchee and the apple farmers and vintners of the Yakima Valley need a competitive edge as much as any other business. And fortunately, the climate for innovation looks good.
AgComm demonstrated a Web-based monitoring and control platform to link farmers' existing frost and heat protection devices to their proprietary sensor units and cloud-based system. The goal is to help fruit growers increase the yields of their orchards while reducing the time they spend checking for frost and heat damage.
C6Systems has developed a unique system to help turn wood-waste ("slash") from forestry operations into a high-quality biochar soil amendment. Carbon sequestration not only creates new value from a product previously considered waste and nuisance, but also improves crop yields and reduces fertilizer costs.
NorthWest Hay Processors has a value proposition as straightforward as its name. They've invented a process that reduces the time to produce high quality hay from seven days to three hours, while reducing the cost, fuel and water use. The company is seeking a million dollars to build their facility, and say they already have enough agreements in place to start operating at full capacity on day one.
PackerData.com is an online service that provides transparency into market conditions for fruit farmers previously held hostage to middlemen charging excessive markups. The market site forces packers to compete for growers' business, creating savings for both producers and consumers. While PackerData's team admits that the Web and tech-based solution can be a hard-sell for traditional farmers, they say the enthusiasm and uptake among the younger generation is encouraging.
Finally, Solanux founder Dr. Kerry Huber developed a patented process to grow potatoes with significantly lower glycemic response results, making it possible to add crunchy, tasty treats back on the menus for people with diabetes, allergies or gluten issues. Considering the rising numbers of Americans with diabetes or pre-diabetic dietary restrictions, that market is not small potatoes.
A few were hits with the judges. AgComm, C6 Systems and Solanux are moving on to the next round of the competition. Each of these companies is hoping to join the ag-based company that claimed last year's "Best Sustainable Advantage" award, WISErg—an eco-friendly startp that derives valuable resources from compostable feedstock—which just closed its recent financing round and is in pilot tests around the Puget Sound.
Rob Salkowitz is author of Young World Rising: How Youth, Technology and Entepreneurship are Changing the World from the Bottom Up. Follow him on Twitter @robsalk.