Ag technology: It's now what’s hot for venture capital investors

Perhaps not since the advent of cheap color TVs has there been a technology that has spread worldwide as rapidly as have smart phones. Rich, poor, big city, small town, everybody’s got one. Global sales of smart phones totaled 1.2 billion units last year, up a whopping 20 percent over 2013.

But, writes Melody M. Bomgardner in Chemical & Engineering News, “there’s another market so big it leaves mobile phones in the dust”: agriculture.

It’s “a $3 trillion industry increasingly driven by technology development, but until recently was practically ignored by venture capitalists.”

That’s changing, she says in the article, “Entrepreneurs See a New Field of Dreams in Agriculture,” as start-up companies targeting plant and animal health are increasingly attracting backing from venture capital funds. Some “are graduating to become publicly traded companies,” and others have been acquired by big crop protection firms such as Bayer and Monsanto, “the Google and Apple of agriculture.

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What the newcomer companies have in their favor, the article notes, “are new ideas, which can be in short supply at the big agricultural firms, despite the billions of dollars they spend on R&D.”

Ignacio Martinez, a partner at Flagship Ventures, is quoted: “We have to be more efficient, and the only way we can solve this problem is by bringing in technology and innovation. And that has to come from entrepreneurs, start-up companies, and collaborative approaches from companies already in agriculture.”

While it can be difficult to compete with head-to-head with the giant companies for farmer dollars, partnering with them “can bring new technologies to market and make a meaningful impact,” Martinez says. Often these new approaches are cast as being environmentally sustainable by increasing yields, while reducing inputs such as fertilizers, pesticides, water, and energy — a “clean tech halo” that helps attract financing.

Among technologies drawing investments are symbiotic microbes that could help plants become more drought- and heat-tolerant. A company, Symbiota, believes a “microbe consortium,” as a seed coating, “could upend markets” for seeds and fertilizers farmers now use.

Other companies are also working to bring designer microbe products to market, among them BioConsortia and Taxon, the latter company recently acquired by DuPont. Syngenta helped create and launch AgriMetis, a startup focused on chemicals for pest control — natural products are larger and more complex than the synthetic molecules used in crop protection today, the article notes, and potentially “can increase specificity and delay the onset of the development of resistance.

Other technologies attracting investment include field automation and data analysis, crops for industrial rather than food uses, robotic equipment (including a tractor-towed automatic plant thinning device), and a host of sensor, UAV, satellite, smart phone technologies.

Read the complete article here.

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