By the end of May, the Iowa AgriTech Accelerator welcomes six new startups fresh on the agriculture field to Des Moines.
Each of those startups selected to participate receives $40,000 in seed funding, subsidized housing throughout the 94 days, and time to build mentorships, partnerships and a broader agritech network in Iowa, Executive Director Megan Vollstedt said.
“A great example of the dynamic environment that we have, and the collaborative environment, was the variety of technology that we were working with” last year, Vollstedt said. “From the startups that we had, we were working with a software-to-service company, pure machinery-hardware companies, to some in between. That was a great range, and I think also a testament to the amount of innovation that can happen in agriculture technology.”
Tell us about the first year. What stood out to you out of the five startups represented?
Being our first year last year, we had a great cohort of startups. We had a great connection between all of the mentors and investors. I think everybody was really involved and engaged and really interested in supporting each other and making the accelerator first cohort a success.
… We were all going into it eyes open and understanding that we have a fantastic group of supporters — the investors, the community support, the mentors, the agtech industry that is here. But I think we were ready to be adaptable, to be flexible with the startups and the needs that we knew we were going to encounter during those days.
Tell us about the challenges the accelerator faced during the first year. What were you learning as that was ongoing?
A good example of being adaptable is continuing to build our network of mentors and experts, [which] became a need last year, as we learned what the startups were facing and what their needs and their goals were once they arrived. Whether that was a need for better rapid prototyping, or more connections to farmers with 1,000-plus acres — being able to communicate with them and do customer discovery with them — that’s a couple of examples where we needed to find more resources for the startups. Those were two areas I had to work on developing during the 100 days at that point.
How did you connect with those mentors and businesses?
We are supported by seven corporate investors, and their support and involvement in the accelerator are key. A lot of the mentors — we have about 40 percent of the mentors come from those seven investor companies. That’s experts and professionals who work in agribusiness and have worked with ag startups, or they’re the experts in the industry and they have that fantastic background to support the startups in what they’re beginning to work on. … Since then, I’ve talked to so many people who attended some of our events last year and wanted to be involved as a mentor and also reached out a little bit more to fill some of those needs that we saw last year, some more rapid prototyping and different focus areas of agriculture — dairy farming or poultry — I’ve been working myself to build that network and make sure we have the resources.
I believe we’re up to about 117 mentors; we ended the last cohort with about 90-some. They’re wonderful people who are able to support us, and we are mentor-driven, so it’s essential to have that rich group of individuals.
Tell us about upcoming plans in Year Two. What is being changed, and what worked really well in the first year?
Our timeline has changed this next year. Our cohort dates will be May 29 to Aug. 30. That’s so we can avoid harvest a little more and not overlap. We did have some teams last year who needed to be out working with customers in that essential time of the year, and our program overlapped with it. We had to be flexible, but we decided this year to fit that time period between planting and harvest.
The startups, pretty much all of them left last year saying that the huge value for them in this accelerator was the people they could meet, the connections that they got, the opening of doors that they had tried to get on their own and weren’t successful in getting and didn’t know that they could get through our mentor pool and our community of supporters. …
We also have entrepreneurs-in-residence that are part of our program,