The successful launch of the Iowa AgriTech Accelerator in 2016 was a boon to furthering the Cultivation Corridor’s mission to support and sustain the science that feeds the world. Within just its first year the groundbreaking initiative saw much success, and according to Executive Director Megan Vollstedt, the coming year promises to bring more of the same.
Vollstedt joined the accelerator in June part way through the interview process for the program’s first cohort in 2017. The accelerator had five startups throughout the 2017 program. Four of them presented on Demo Day in October at the end of the 100-day program.
“I really enjoyed seeing [the mentor-startup] relationships form and develop,” Vollstedt said about what her favorite part of the program was. “That is a huge part of our program because we are mentor driven and led. So, seeing the teams work really well with their mentors or going to some of the mentors for advice, I think that was a great part and I enjoyed seeing those teams form for the startups.”
Vollstedt recalled being pleasantly surprised by the number of mentors the accelerator got for the first cohort. The program started on July 10, and there were about 90 mentors involved in the program by the end of that month.
“We recruited some during the program in order to fill the gap of experience and backgrounds that the teams needed, so based on what the startups were looking for, we tried to find comfortable professionals that could provide guidance for them. Obviously a few volunteered and contacted me from different organizations and different parts of the community in order to be involved. We had quite a few that just decided to join during the program. I think that’s a really good testament of the community’s support that the Accelerator has, people are willing to give and have that give first mentality,” Vollstedt explained.
Vollstedt proudly said the investors and mentors from the 2017 cohort will be on board for the 2018 cohort. The second cohort will most likely have more mentors than the first class due to support from the community and increased interest in involvement. The mentor-startup relationships that formed during the program that provided the basis for a good team to follow them where they go, proved to be a highly valued outcome of the first cohort. Vollstedt thinks the startups in the next cohort will take on that team structure again and it will continue to grow.
Besides adding more mentors, another change coming to the second cohort for the accelerator happening later in the year is its schedule. Towards the end of the 2017 program some of the accelerator’s teams were starting to work with their customers in the field for harvest causing them to have less time to give to the programming of the accelerator.
“One thing that we are doing for  is adjusting the timeline. Our date actually will be May 29 to August 30, that will be a great time to fit between planting and harvest so that our startups, if they are working on products in the field, it won’t be a distraction for them. That was a good lesson from ,” Vollstedt said.
Vollstedt has kept in close contact with the startups that pitched on Demo Day back in October, to end the first cohort.
“I got to know the startups pretty well over the 100 days and we were essentially coworkers during that time. They have continued their work: Rabbit Tractors has a working prototype now, WISRAN was working on a project in Australia, FarrPro has an office in the [ISU Research Park] now and they have continued their success, and Hintech is working in the shop on an iteration of its machine and that is something taken away from the program: how to iterate and create a product,” she said.
The startups in the 2017 AgriTech Accelerator cohort came to Iowa from different states around the country.
“I think their coming here enriches the startup ecosystem in the community in Des Moines and Ames. The central Iowa community is very welcoming of ideas and innovation and so it was a really great fit. I also think the startups are exposed to the customer base that’s here as Iowa is a leader in agriculture with all of the farming operations that happen here. This is where they need to be sure their customers are aware of them and would essentially buy their products. I think it was really eye-opening for them to understand that they got to be immersed in this while they were here and this is really their end goal too,” Vollstedt said.
Vollstedt is looking forward to the second cohort and to bring in up to six new teams. Applications opened on January 2 and will close on April 2. The program will start on May 29.
Vollstedt said, “We are excited for 2018. The next cohort is going to be 94 days this year. So for everyone who is following along with us and this next cohort and the startups we bring in, they’ll be excited too.” She predicts the new startups will bring new and innovative processes and equipment to the Central Iowa agritech ecosystem.