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Food Inclusion Innovation

Where Women Drive Innovation: Agtech

This story is part of a Techonomy series about women innovators in agtech. It’s produced in partnership with From Farms to Incubators.

Salinas, California–The artery of highway that connects agriculture and innovation is known as “Highway 101.” Silicon Valley, the epicenter of entrepreneurship and the venture capital mecca, and Salinas Valley are a little less than 60 miles from one another, but in many respects they’re worlds apart. Here, a modern landscape of glass buildings and neon-colored signs morphs into fields of lettuce, strawberries, broccoli, kale, and other greens.

In recent years, agtech—the marriage of agriculture and tech—has become more urgently needed, and has accordingly grown steadily. It reached $16.9 billion in funding across 1,450 in investments by the start of 2019. 

Salinas is known as “the salad bowl of the world.” In the Salinas Valley, agriculture is a $9 billion industry and produces roughly 80 percent of the leafy greens in the U.S. In Monterey County, where Salinas is the country seat, agriculture accounts for $4 billion per year of economic output. An estimated 61 percent of the nation’s lettuce is grown there. 

The region also serves as headquarters to some of the country’s largest agriculture companies and producers – Taylor Farms, Earthbound Farm, Fresh Express, and Driscoll’s, for example—that supply America’s restaurants and groceries. At the same time local government has made boosting agtech a priority. In downtown Salinas, for example, is the Western Growers Center for Innovation and Technology (CIT), a government-backed incubator for agtech startups. 

Out of this, something remarkable is emerging: opportunity for women innovators and entrepreneurs. Agtech has, sadly, up until now been dominated by white men. But a number of the agtech startups – including several inside the CIT—are being launched and led by women, especially those of color. While their stories are diverse, they share numerous commonalities. The majority come with a strong STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) background, and a passion to create a technology and products that can improve the food industry. 

Here are a few of the women driving innovation in agtech:

  • Miku Jha, founder and CEO of AgShift, which makes an AI driven food quality hardware analyzer for bulk inspection. The machine helps reduce food waste as it reduces the amount of produce that goes through the hand of the inspectors. 
  • Diane Wu and Poornima Parameswaran, who founded Trace Genomics. Their company offers a soil testing platform that analyzes and maps the pattern of the soil by applying DNA extraction and sequencing process to millions of microbes. Data is then decoded and analyzed, to give growers crucial information for healthier soil. 
  • Christine Su, who founded PastureMap. Her company helps cattle ranchers manage their land and cattle more efficiently through a mobile platform.

Despite the rapid advances in science and technology, the agtech sector’s fate is heavily dependent on Mother Nature. The realities of climate change, dramatic temperature fluctuations, and the constant struggle of balancing agriculture with conservation and wildlife ecology can mean a year or more of crop failure. California continues to face a land and water shortage and other sometimes shockingly-sudden climatic changes, as this year’s fires underscore. Many growers wrestle with the rising cost of doing business in an industry that’s still highly dependent on labor and machinery.  

Al Courchesne, a farmer and the owner of Frog Hollow, an organic farm in the town of Brentwood, just north of San Francisco, has changed his crop plan because of shifting weather patterns. Declining winter chill hours, prompted by warmer weather, resulted in stunted fruit blossoms, and moved Courchesne to graft the existing trees with new varieties that require fewer chilling hours. Extreme storms triggered fungal diseases that destroyed his apricots and other stone fruits. In recent years, he stepped up the dried fruit business and spent money to tackle the labor shortage. “We invested over $100,000 in equipment to get the peels off the peaches and the stems off cherries,” Courchesne says. 

Courchesne launched his first orchard in 1976, and began farming with organic practices in 1989 as part of a commitment to build soil health and community. He is keen on data and analysis about soil that is essential to crop yield. As a result, he is open to conversations with the technology companies, the majority of them startups, that have approached him with their products. An imaging drone, for example, might serve as “eyes on the ground” and assist Frog Hollow’s pest control advisor. “It would empower us,” says Courchesne, who needs help since the farm has grown from 140 to 280 acres. “The drone technology is really good –we’re looking to adopt that as soon as possible, and somebody told me that drones that will be picking peaches in the near future,” he muses. He’s keen on “any new technologies that would help us understand soil better.” He has heard from a number of companies offering farm record data software. 

At the CIT in Salinas, the place is buzzing with entrepreneurs networking with agriculture companies or connecting with investors. By October 2019, the center hosted nearly 60 companies—majority already based in California.

Dennis Donohue, who leads the CIT, says the growing number of startups reflects the need of growers to turn to technology. Some innovations he says are particularly needed: automation for planting, harvesting and thinning and weeding, technologies that offer data and analysis for food safety and soil health, and innovation catered to specialty crops—like celery, berries and pistachios—that have a higher level of complexity. 

The creation and refinement of agtech innovation involves connecting with growers, working closely with consumers, building a team, and raising capital. Will the ripples eventually lead to a paradigm shift in the sector and also who leads it? The stories of women agtech innovators in the Salinas Valley and beyond suggests the answer may be yes

Hear more from Amy Wu at Techonomy 2019  in Half Moon Bay, Calif.

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