Innovation will help agriculture feed, clothe and fuel a growing global population. The NextFarm™ Agricultural Innovation Accelerator helps entrepreneurs deliver innovations that will thrive in the marketplace and grow Tennessee’s economy.
Brett Norman and Clayton Plymill co-founded AgSmarts in 2013 to bring industrial building automation technology to agricultural irrigation. Norman, who grew up on a tobacco and vegetable farm in Sumner County, credits NextFarm with jumpstarting AgSmarts. “We had a great idea, but we had no idea how to take it to market,” he says. NextFarm is an intensive, 90- day weekend program helping entrepreneurs turn agriculturerelated business ideas into fundable businesses. “NextFarm allowed us to understand how to be attractive to investors, how to refine our story to attract the startup funding we needed,” Norman says.
Investors crave proof that a market exists; NextFarm prods companies to enter into actual conversations with future customers. “If there is not an existing or easily established market for the idea or product, then the venture is not likely to succeed,” says Carol Reed, executive director of Northwest Tennessee Entrepreneur Center (NTEC) in Martin.
AgSmarts has raised nearly $1 million from investors who see potential profits in managing irrigation systems. In 2015, the Memphis-based firm will continue field testing and start distributing its field node sensor through partnerships with regional precision ag equipment and input dealers along with independent crop consultants.
“A lot of the variable rate irrigation technology today is very complicated to use, making it amazingly underutilized by producers,” Norman says. The technology can also help farmers manage nonirrigated fields, he says.
Another key for NextFarm: linking beginning entrepreneurs with mentors who have “been there and done that.”
“For startup entrepreneurs, there’s no boss to turn to for advice or direction,” Reed says. “Mentors provide a good, reliable sounding board, a second, seasoned opinion.”
NextFarm started in 2013, and NTEC contracted with Memphis Bioworks Foundation to provide services for the initial 2014 class. Memphis Bioworks, created in 2001 to foster economic growth in Memphis, focused on entrepreneurship in the medical, agricultural and logistics fields. “Without question, the services we received from Memphis Bioworks helped us progress exponentially toward our goal of establishing our entrepreneur center as a world-class, regional, agriculture-focused innovation accelerator,” Reed says.
The connection to Memphis Bioworks – and the timing – was perfect for entrepreneur Sarah Bellos.
“I connected with Memphis BioWorks through USDA Rural Development,” says Bellos, president of Stony Creek Colors in Goodlettsville. The company, which has been awarded both a USDA business development and an SBIR research grant, was accepted into the 2014 NextFarm class. “It was a good time for us to think about our all-around business,” she says.
Stony Creek Colors contracts with farms to grow a strain of indigo suited for Tennessee’s climate. The company then processes the plants into indigo dye for use by commercial denim manufacturers. Bellos says NextFarm helped her focus beyond the farm-level challenges of growing a new crop. “Our focus is still on making sure our products create a new, niche market for southeastern U.S. farms,” she says. “But NextFarm helped us validate the market for our products and ensure our business was designed to grow to the necessary scale.”
In 2015, Stony Creek Colors will work with a major denim manufacturer to develop an all- American denim jean using U.S. cotton and U.S.-grown colorants. Barring setbacks, Bellos projects the company will need indigo from 1,000 acres by 2017, with growth potential to 15,000 acres.
“That’s a small amount of land when compared with commodity farm crops,” she says. “But indigo is a good fit for growers willing to produce an alternative crop with strong consumer interest.”
A Broad Farm Spectrum
Through NextFarm, agricultural startups like AgSmarts and Stony Creek Colors refine their ideas and verify their products can perform in the marketplace. That helps meet global agricultural challenges – and grows Tennessee’s economy.
“Agriculture is a vital part of Tennessee’s economy, and by providing entrepreneurial expertise, we’re helping the industry grow and innovate while helping local entrepreneurs scale their businesses right here in Tennessee,” says Steve Bares, president and executive director of Memphis Bioworks Foundation.