Article
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13.5.2024

LP Spotlight: Insights from Purdue Gold & Black Agri-Food Fund Investors

Matthew Bushery
Ryan Larcom
Colin MacDougall

“The speed with which a concept is developed and explored to having real-life metrics and a pathway to $100 million is incredible.”

That, according to Premier Companies COO Ryan Priest, is, in part, why his organization decided to become a limited partner of the Gold & Black Agri-Food Fund, an agriculture-focused fund operated by High Alpha Innovation.

Capital invested in the fund powers new startups emerging from DIAL Ventures, a venture studio operated in collaboration with Purdue University and led by High Alpha Innovation, that aim to positively impact the world.

It’s not just Premier Companies that has become a Gold & Black LP, though.

Keystone Cooperative and Loftus Ranches also allocated funds to the Gold & Black Agri-Food Fund, enabling DIAL to conduct research, generate concepts, and — at the end of the day — launch advantaged tech startups designed to make both an immediate and long-term impact in the AgriFood value chain.

But what exactly compelled these companies to direct monies toward the Gold & Black Agri-Food Fund? We asked them to find out — and their answers paint a picture of optimism around tangible transformation within the ag space.

What made the Gold & Black Agri-Food Fund stand out to Keystone Cooperative, Premier Companies, and Loftus Ranches

Ryan relayed how Premier, which provides agricultural supplies and energy services to 3,500-plus growers and producers (many of whom are farmer-owners of the ag cooperative) and more than 1.5 million acres, became aware of the work coming out of DIAL Ventures after hearing directly from the studio’s leadership team.

“Dr. Allan Gray [Executive Director at DIAL], spoke to our board at an offsite meeting and laid out the plan for the venture studio and the creation of digital solutions for many of agriculture’s issues,” said Ryan. After meetings with the Gold & Black Agri-Food Fund, Premier’s board decided to take advantage of the investment opportunity.

“We were impressed with the idea, and the board voted to invest [in the Gold & Black Agri-Food Fund] and support this initiative," he added.

Ryan, along with Premier Companies CEO Harold Cooper, were particularly captivated by DIAL’s efforts to collaborate with both on-the-ground agriculture industry members and those from outside the space to gain fresh perspectives on ag issues that merit consideration for new tech ventures to address.

"The DIAL Ventures model brings together talented Fellows with new perspectives from outside the industry who problem-solve alongside agriculture businesses and industry experts with diverse experiences to create startups that solve problems that we have and help us differentiate ourselves,” said Harold.

As for Keystone, Drew Garretson, the company’s Vice President of Innovation, Sustainability, and Public Policy, detailed how the Gold & Black Agri-Food Fund offered a unique investment opportunity that could lead to the creation of transformative ventures separate from Keystone’s core operations.

“We wanted to stay connected to the future of agrifood and AgTech,” said Drew. “To do that, we decided it was best to invest some risk capital outside of our existing business verticals.”

Drew added the strength of the DIAL Ventures team and its connection to Purdue gave Keystone the confidence to invest in the Gold & Black Agri-Food Fund.

“If not for DIAL, we would have stood up additional resources (mostly human capital) internally to solve for the same problems,” Drew explained.

Keystone Cooperative Sr. VP of Strategy Doug Brunt echoed Drew’s sentiments, noting that implementing in-house innovation initiatives has been challenging to date. Earmarking investment dollars to the Gold & Black Agri-Food Fund presented a path to finally explore new innovation opportunities.

"We at Keystone are constantly focused on day-to-day operational aspects of our business and we struggle with how to innovate,” said Doug.

“DIAL is exciting and important because it gives us the opportunity to become part of something bigger. For organizations that similarly struggle, DIAL Ventures is very efficient with your time while providing a lot of new ideas for your business."

Patrick Smith, the CEO of Loftus Ranches and Founder of Loftus Labs, shared how he and other Loftus leaders “have seen firsthand on our farm how technology and digital innovation lead to significant productivity gains.”

While American agriculture is the best in the world, per Patrick, the industry is facing significant headwinds in virtually all verticals.

That means his company has to address these challenges — labor shortages, water issues, market access, and managing stakeholder relationships chief among them — head-on.

Investing in the Gold & Black Agri-Food Fund enables Loftus Ranches to do just that.

“The demands on a farmer's time and energy are ever-increasing, and digital transformation of our businesses, including those created through the Gold & Black Agri-Food Fund, represents an incredible opportunity for the AgriFood industry,” Patrick added.

Why Keystone, Premier, and Loftus are increasingly excited for the future of Gold & Black-backed agricultural innovation

Premier Companies regularly hosts each cohort in the learning phase of concept exploration and facilitates in-person tours of facilities and virtual meetings to glean valuable insights that can inform decision-making around new startups.

Thanks to these frequent meetups and in-depth conversations, Ryan stated his excitement level for highly profitable venture creation coming out of DIAL Ventures is high.

“The ideas, now startups, such as Croft and Gripp, among others, give hope that innovation paired with expertise can lead the business of agriculture far into the future,” said Ryan.

Ryan relayed how there are several issues that could impair the ag sector going forward. However, the work being done by DIAL Ventures, thanks in part to backing by the Gold & Black Agri-Food Fund, gives him and others at Premier Companies considerable hope for a brighter future.

“In an industry that makes up less than 2% of the population, yet feeds 100% of it, it is exciting to see the outside expertise so willing to dig in and address the issues that, operationally, we are too busy and ‘heads down’ and likely unqualified to fix ourselves,” Ryan noted.

Ultimately, Ryan and Harold revealed they are excited to see how the business ideas that, as of mid-2024, are being evaluated and moved to the “sprint” phase — where finalist concepts are advanced, scrutinized, and validated — play out with DIAL Ventures.

“We’ve been involved in two of the portfolio companies, and they show real promise in solving two front-of-mind issues facing agriculture,” said Ryan.

Over at Keystone, Drew said the company's approach to evaluating a prospective solution to ag challenges is based on three distinct categories:

  1. The accuracy of the output versus the current industry gold standard
  2. The scalability and ease of ease (UX) of a given tech platform
  3. The eventual solution’s affordability for end users (often, farmers)

“DIAL Ventures has certainly accounted for these factors as their staff explores, advances, and validates its venture concepts,” Drew stated.

One of the most impressive things Drew said he’s seen from the DIAL Ventures team since becoming a Gold & Black LP in recent months was their desire to regularly convene with so many agriculture industry leaders and experts who provide invaluable insights that inform startup development.

“Seeing DIAL and ag sector experts all in one room sharing notes and offering ideas throughout has been impressive,” said Drew. “It’s a unique approach.”

Patrick conveyed how fortunate Loftus Ranches has been to work with the Gold & Black portfolio companies, including the recently launched Make Hay, from the very earliest stages of their inception.

The prospect of doing that with other portfolio companies in the future has Loftus Ranches eager to make further headway in other niche areas of the agricultural space, according to Patrick.

“It is really impactful to engage directly with the teams building these companies, helping them craft better solutions to our problems,” said Patrick.

“It is a win-win for us as farmers and for the companies launched, and I believe this ongoing work will result in significantly better product-market fit. This type of direct engagement is the power of the DIAL Ventures model.”

All three Gold & Black Agri-Food Fund limited partners indicated they have their eyes on growing AgriFood and AgTech trends — including regenerative agriculture, landscape-scale conservation, on-farm soil health, and AI and robotics use cases for farming equipment.

And they all expressed their confidence DIAL Ventures will continue to grow, as they see the dedicated work by the studio’s Fellows in building viable businesses from the ground up to solve some of ag’s more pressing challenges.

"We believe the fundamental business that ag retail is in is changing,” said Harold.

Harold added he constantly thinks about what ag retail could look like moving forward and seeks new revenue opportunities, new ways of using digital to manage our business, and new ways to advance common interests in an uncommon way.

“The Gold & Black Agri-Food Fund and DIAL Ventures afford us, as limited partners, an outstanding opportunity to invest in new, potentially fruitful ventures that can address key ag-oriented issues and evolve at the same pace as the industry at large," said Harold.

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