How the Agrifood Industry Is Approaching Innovation Today

Matthew Bushery

"There is a lot of innovation occurring in the ag space," High Alpha Innovation Director Ryan Larcom said at the start of the roundtable chat at Purdue DIAL Ventures' latest Future of Agrifood innovation summit.

"It's just that we're not innovating at the same speed as everyone else."

One reason for the lack of forward-thinking transformation in agrifood, per Ryan? The sector is hindered by "the fact that we are a physical industry."

That said, Ryan and the trio of ag experts who took part in the panel relayed there is ample opportunity for industry-led innovation today and tomorrow.

The future of agrifood: What we recently learned about the state of food and agriculture innovation

Substantial private capital investments have been made in recent years to update existing and establish new agricultural products that aid with a wide range of key challenges and needs around the food supply chain, sustainable development, and natural resource protection.

Yet McKinsey reports that, despite "recent increases in on-farm profitability and strong investments over the last decade, there is a high openness to innovation, yet adoption is slow."

It's not that farmers aren't willing to embrace innovation today. (Many most certainly are.)

As the summit panel agreed, it's simply a matter of agtech companies earning their trust. They must prove their new and/or enhanced offerings will have a sizable, positive impact on farmer's day-to-day operations and contribute to greater cost-efficiency, productivity, and profitability.

"We still have a long way to go in terms of leveling adoption rates with the rate of groundbreaking agricultural innovations entering the market," Foundation for Food & Agriculture Research Fellow Enrique Pena Martinez recently wrote. "However, we can begin meaningful conversations with our farmers to genuinely comprehend their needs and values."

The opportunity to address farmers' needs, thereby, lies with corporate leaders, like those who took the stage in Chicago at the latest edition of the DIAL-run event who — as Ryan indicated — have embraced three distinct types of agrifood-centric innovation:

Here's what these execs had to say at the Future of Agrifood summit about the success they've seen with their distinct innovation models — and an example of a new agtech startup co-created by High Alpha Innovation and DIAL that shows the upside of collaborative venture creation.

Credit: Purdue DIAL Ventures

Kubota's ag-centric PortCo additions contributing to business growth

Food. Water. The environment. These are the three focus areas for Kubota.

An internal R&D team regularly explores expansions and modifications to its principal products and other concepts to address ag-related challenges tied to the above business themes. But Brett noted acquisition is a also a lever Kubota has frequently pulled in recent years to add new portfolio companies that can amplify the effectiveness of core equipment.

"We participate in [corporate venturing] looking at startups," said Brett. "Particularly in areas where we might not have traditional expertise."

"Fast-changing areas like AI and ML, there's a lot going on there," Brett continued. "We don't have the expertise [in these areas], and we're not ready to make that big bet to scale out. So, that's where we put the work in this startup area and place some small bets."

In terms of acquiring companies, Brett stated that, once a prospective PortCo is ready to scale and it makes sense to scale from a timing perspective, where Kubota can take advantage of an emerging market opportunity, that's when the business gets really interested in making an investment.

As long as an external venture is aligned with the strategic interests of Kubota and does its due diligence to make the business case for either folding into existing Kubota products or helping to expand its offerings, Brett said they will seriously consider working with those startups.

"Regulations are changing," Brett added. "In order to [provide value to customers], there's a collaboration and partnership that has to occur. It's really that customer-centric view and making the growers the most productive they can be that's driving that innovation [in ag]."

Compeer's intrapreneurship program leading to new, novel ideas

The rise of intrapreneurship at corporations, especially those in the agrifood space, as a means to drive and unlock innovation shouldn't come as a surprise.

That said, empowering employees to pursue new business ideas and give them the requisite R&D resources to see those ideas through — from testing proof of concepts, to developing business plans and go-to-market proposals — isn't something all C-suites do for their workforce.

Bridget noted how Compeer has embraced the intrapreneurship approach.

The organization gives staff members who partake in its Kickbox intrapreneurship program the tools and backing they need to fully evaluate and validate ideas that can potentially transform the business for the better.

"We're really curious about how we can serve the future farmer," said Bridget. "Who is this person? Where do they live? How do they grow their crops? And what are their needs?"

And a big part of serving future farmers for Compeer, according to Bridget?

Allowing employees to build on their ideas in Kickbox and make it easier for growers and producers to grow their businesses.

Bridget spotlighted one "Kickboxer" is working on an idea to improve farmers' access to equity-free capital. The concept would make it easier to get money needed to buy new machines, streamline operations, and scale their businesses.

"That's just one example of how we're thinking about building, starting with problems," said Bridget. "And that's why I think we love Purdue, DIAL Ventures, and High Alpha Innovation. Because it is truly, 'How can we love the problem from the beginning, and how we can iterate and improve from there?'"

Bridget added Compeer is a year into the Kickbox program. In that time, a strong culture of ideation and experimentation — one they learned from venture studios and builders — is now firmly in place.

"Allowing team members [at Compeer] to work on ideas and to use proven discipline of innovation, human-centered design, we can start to scale innovation around the business," said Bridget. "Whether that means a new product ... we're really excited."

Credit: Purdue DIAL Ventures

Nutrien's university partnerships helping it with R&D and licensing

Without an in-house R&D arm to help augment existing offerings and work on other adjacent and transformative innovation initiatives, Aman noted Nutrien Ag Solutions has to turn to other avenues to unearth ideas that can help the business strengthen its product lines.

Enter more than a dozen university partners, who both take on research validation projects requested by Nutrien (including recent ones around land grant utilization) and share insights on their institutions' intellectual property that the company can explore licensing to improve its core products.

Despite outsourcing some of its innovation endeavors, Aman said it's still collaborative work. "Innovation does not happen in isolation," Aman shared at the summit session. "Innovation is not a solo act."

With a clearly defined mission of "Feeding the Future," Aman said Nutrien is committed to liaising with research universities in its network to tackle Nutrien customers' biggest needs and concerns: from increasing crop yield and reducing food loss, to better protecting soil and crops.

As with Kubota, Aman said any idea brought forth by university partners based on their research — which, as of early 2024, includes analysis of remote sensing, drone, and farm/food system management opportunities — is put under the microscope to ensure it's the right fit for Nutrien.

Innovative AgTech platform launched for food producers and brands

The engaging panel was a central component of the Future of Agrifood event.

However, there were also plenty of other insights shared and news and trends discussed. That includes the latest joint venture from High Alpha Innovation and DIAL Ventures that was launched just before the event.

Make Hay, a new B2B AgTech marketing platform, not only provides unique benefits for today's farmers across the U.S., but also brands and consumers:

  • Producers and growers get to share their authentic stories around how they grow nutritious foods and raise livestock by shooting videos on their phones.
  • Restaurants, retailers, and manufacturers can leverage that content on their social media accounts to build trust and increase transparency with customers.
  • Consumers get to see the origins of the food production from farmers throughout the nation and better understand the quality of brands' food products.

Make Hay marks the fourth co-created advantaged startup developed by DIAL Ventures and High Alpha Innovation, who have brought ventures Croft, Oaken, and Gripp to market in recent years, with both companies already working on the next agrifood-focused venture to launch in 2024.

And Ryan detailed how it's this kind of collective agrifood system innovation that will lead to further advancements for both ag-focused companies and farmers.

"We believe the industry ought to come together to innovate," said Ryan.

"There are some potential disruptors out there. [But] we can actually do more damage if we're being more thoughtful about how we're disrupting ourselves and our business models through innovating."

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