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Agribusiness Entrepreneurs Hope For Bumper Crop Of Investment

A recent business plan competition demonstrated the breadth and quality of innovation from a new generation of agribusiness entrepreneurs.

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.

On Wednesday, the Center for
Innovation and Entrepreneurship
at the University of Washington Foster
School of Business hosted the qualifying round of its annual
business plan contest
.

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.

About the author

Rob Salkowitz is author of Comic-Con and the Business of Pop Culture (McGraw-Hill, 2012), Young World Rising (2010), and two other books on youth and digital media as agents of change. He is Director of Strategy at MediaPlant, LLC, a Seattle-based communications firm he co-founded in 1999.

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