Joel Harris, Co-Director of Ag Startup Engine, Shares Insights on Innovation in America’s Cultivation Corridor

With undergraduate and graduate students, faculty and alumni working toward solutions to make the world a more productive and food secure place, there is no shortage of big ideas brewing in agricultural programs at universities across the country.  However, the process of taking an idea through product development, testing, and into commercialization is often more daunting than the challenge they are hoping to solve.

In 2016, an innovative program was launched to identify and support those big ideas from students, faculty, and alumni from Iowa State University (ISU) in Ames, Iowa.  In just a few years, the Ag Startup Engine (ASE) has developed an innovative model for providing early seed funding and mentorship for 12 startups to-date, each leveraging the base of 10 industry members.

Co-director Joel Harris brought first-hand experience to the Ag Startup Engine, haven taken a similar path during undergraduate studies as many of the existing portfolio companies a decade earlier.  Joel and his father, Dr. Hank Harris, built ISU spinout company Harrisvaccines to commercialize a novel production platform for next generation vaccines in the livestock industry.  After a number of successes including vaccines for swine influenza in 2009, porcine coronavirus (known as PEDv) in 2014, and avian influenza in 2015, Harrisvaccines was acquired by Merck Animal Health (Merck AH).

Following the successful integration and transition of Harrisvaccines to Merck AH, Harris collaborated with Kevin Kimle, Rastetter Chair of Agricultural Entrepreneurship at Iowa State University and Director of ISU’s Agricultural Entrepreneurship Initiative, to begin supporting new founders and their technologies coming from of the broader ISU network.

“When we started Harrisvaccines back in 2005, the ecosystem of accelerators, incubators and early stage funds didn’t exist here in Iowa.  Even as those resources have grown to what we see present day, a gap remains in helping founders get from idea to commercialization as quickly as reasonably possible,” said Harris.  “These Founders want to tap niche expertise from those who have previously and importantly, successfully, come before them, they want help in more broadly expanding their own respective networks, and they want champions in their corner as they embark on this challenging endeavor of building a business. As ASE has grown, we have seen no shortage of interesting ideas continue to seek out what this program offers.”

The Ag Startup Engine model is unique because it provides the initial funding necessary to allow founders the time and flexibility to build out their concepts for testing and begin to gather the market based feedback critical to moving towards commercialization without the confines of a traditional 90-day classroom style framework or timeline.

“We try to serve as the first stop for any interesting founder and idea in the Agricultural Technology sphere, broadly defined. And we firmly believe Ames, Iowa, is the best place to start that entrepreneurial journey,” he said.

While the 12 portfolio companies range widely in their technologies and target market, bringing them together to share ideas and discuss challenges is an important part of the model. Each month, a roundtable session is held for portfolio company CEOs to share successes and failures from the past 30 days.

“We don’t try to handhold any of our founders or require them to follow a certain pathway.  Instead, the onus is on the founders to ask for help and access the network of niche expertise,” said Harris.  “Our ten industry members play a key role in helping founders with due diligence, asking probing questions and challenging them to make sure their model and approach are right for the marketplace. Above all else though, it has truly been fascinating to watch the founders themselves challenge each other and hold one another to the highest of standards as they grow.”

All of the companies in the Engine’s current program have ties to Iowa in one way or another, said Harris.  Some were spinout technologies initially developed at ISU, others were alumni who wanted to come back to the area with their respective ideas but needed a place to get started, and still others had on-going research projects in various disciplines within the ISU.

“Iowa provides a tremendous advantage for agricultural technology startups as a leader in agricultural production in addition to being home to so many leading experts in every sector of the industry,” he said. “In animal health, for example, we have the USDA National Animal Disease Center and Center for Veterinary Biologics in Ames as well as all of the expertise at ISU.”

Harris also noted that startups who have moved to Iowa are impressed with the combination of access to top talent and proximity to customer base, along with cost-effective office space, housing, and other resources.

The Ag Startup Engine program has reached several milestones over the past year, with the 12 program companies combining to have now created more than 100 jobs and to have raised more than $25 million in additional follow-on fundingseveral of the ASE program companies have been positively recognized by industry associations or won thousands of dollars through various business plan competitions. Finally, SmartAg, the very first company in the Ag Startup Engine, was recently acquired by Raven Industries creating the first successful exit for the program.

The Ag Startup Engine is also looking to its own future as plans are underway to launch a second iteration of the program to allow for more industry participation. All of these efforts are to continue ASE’s mission to identify and support the early stage companies that will make a difference for farmers and consumers in Iowa and around the world.