The Next in Ag Innovations, as Heard at WIAS23
By Michelle Pelletier Marshall, Women in Agribusiness Media (December 19, 2023)
Nearly 80 percent of agricultural yields are done by machine operations. More than 70 percent of farmers want to incorporate more technology into their farming techniques. Eighty-five percent of farmers use precision agriculture techniques, like GPS or remote sensing. That’s a lot of interest and some pretty high usage.
According to Statista, the top three leading agricultural technology innovations of 2022 were: Internet of things or IoT, the collective network of connected devices and the technology that facilitates communication between devices and the cloud, as well as between the devices themselves; robotics; and artificial intelligence, or AI. Drones, big data & analytics, agri-biotech, and regenerative ag also made the top 10 list. In 2021, the global agtech market alone stood at approximately US$10.5 billion, with expectation to double the current value by 2025. But ag innovations come in many forms – any product, program, tool, or service that bridges gaps across the ag supply chain, or helps farmers and consumers do more with less, or provides a solution to sustainability, climate change, labor shortages and the like – from small firms to large agribusinesses.
In our Ag Innovations Hour at the annual Women in Agribusiness Summit, we have featured some of the most intriguing creations and state-of-the-art resolutions to ag’s ever-changing landscape of needs and wants, and this year was no different at the 2023 Summit in Nashville.
From botanically infused ice-cube mixers to tampons made of hemp fiber to applying drug discovery methodologies to agriculture, this year’s five-person panel spotlighted businesses carving out a niche in the opportunistic world of ag.
Hear what they had to say, under the direction of moderator Suzanne Lawson, a seasoned veteran in the global ag industry who was, until her recent retirement, president of the Crop Protection Business Platform of Corteva Agriscience, a $7.2 billion business.
CLAIRE CRUNK, Founder & CEO, Trace Femcare, Inc
Trace Femcare, Inc, is a U.S.-based brand creating hemp fiber absorbent hygiene products focused on healing the earth through regenerative agricultural systems and regionalized, traceable supply chains. Founder Claire Crunk began her career in hemp fiber markets and technical textile development in 2018 after leaving a 10-year practice as a board-certified Women’s Health Nurse Practitioner.
“Good morning, who's ready to talk about tampons before 9 a.m.? Well, I'm Claire Crunk, founder of Trace Femcare. We make period products out of hemp fiber and climate beneficial cotton. I'm a mom of three daughters. I've been a women's health nurse practitioner for 15 years, and I menstruate, so I know a thing or two about periods. And I'm in a room full of women so I'd venture to guess that you know a thing or two about periods as well. But I'm here to tell you what you don't know. What if I told you that just three years ago, a tampon manufacturer told me women do not care what's in their period products. What if I told you that another tampon manufacturer that has products on shelves today in the United States, knowingly sources their organic cotton from countries notorious for child and exploited labor? What if I told you that the last time a new material was introduced into tampons was before I was born? And that was in the 1970s with the introduction of organic cotton.
So why in the year of 2023 is this global period care industry stuck in the Stone Age? And this is why… our supply chain is overly complex, it's globalized and it's commoditized, and this has created a sick system where brands do not know the ingredients in their products, and they don't know how their products are made. It's created a system where materials innovation is impossible, and people are vulnerable.
So why is the tampon company here at an agricultural conference? I was asked me to come today because at Trace we knew the first place to start was with our ingredients, and those ingredients start in the soil. In 2018 in the U.S. it became legal again to grow hemp. No one knew what they were doing because for 70 years we had lost out on that agronomical knowledge. Well, hemp is pretty cool. It absorbs better than cotton, and manages moisture, in some ways better than cotton. Hemp also sequestered carbon more efficiently than trees. It grows without irrigation and pesticides and it has a nice beautiful, long tap root that heals soils. That's all great. But at the time, no one knew how to grow the plant, and no one knew how to extract the fiber, especially for a high-quality product like ours.
That’s where our innovation story begins. I literally threw the seeds in the ground that I imported from China. I'm not a grower, but that's all there was at the time. We had to learn seed spacing, soil prep, genetics, harvest timing, how to bale it, how to store it. We literally started from the ground up.
After our five-year journey, we now have patent pending processing technology, and an agronomical playbook to create high-quality, hygiene-grade hemp fiber. We are now the world's first hemp fiber tampon, and the U.S.’s first consumer product made with 100 percent U.S.-grown and processed hemp fiber. We could only do that because we were there from the beginning, walking alongside growers to learn and making direct investments into this innovation. We took that blueprint and applied it to our cotton program too, as we blend our products with cotton. We're founding members of the California Cotton and Climate Coalition where we invest with farmers into transitioning acreage into regenerative practices. We're very proud that even in one growing season, we've doubled water-carrying capacity – and that was on the tailend of a four-year drought in California. So, being there from the beginning with farmers has led us on a journey where we know exactly what's going in our products, we can tell you exactly what ingredients, and you know that clinicians have hand selected it right down to the soil amendments. We've integrated the first regenerative raw material, regenerative fiber, into a product that's used every day forever until humanity ends. And we know not just because of a piece of paper that our farmers, that our supply chain partners, are paid and treated fairly. In truth, we heal self, we heal the Earth, we heal communities. I'm proud to announce this for the first time publicly that Trace is open for business, and we launch tomorrow.
LIZZIE KING, Director of Sales, North America, Impossible Foods
Lizzie King joined Impossible Foods in 2017 and has held multiple roles within the innovative food tech startup. She currently leads the team that oversees Impossible Foods’ largest foodservice accounts including Burger King, Starbucks, and White Castle.
“Good morning, everyone. I'm very excited to be here today, not only because of the amazing networking opportunities and learning from so many of you in this room, but I am in a room full of so many people that care so much about how we need to feed the world. And so I'm very excited to share a little bit more about Impossible Foods today.
So when thinking about the problem ahead of us – how do we create a system sustainable food future by 2050 to feed a growing planet with less land while using less resources? In a paper from the World Resource Institute, they proposed different solutions: improved feeds, resilient crop breeds, and plant-based meats.
I recognize there are no silver bullets to this challenge, but I am excited about how Impossible Foods can be part of the solution to these very complex challenges ahead of us. Impossible Foods was founded on the premise that meat is delicious so we started with the simple question of “What makes meat meat?” Why does it turn from red to brown as a cooks? Why is it squishy and pliable when it's raw, but it firms up as it's being cooked? What are the aromas, the sensations that are coming from it? We discovered this magical ingredient called heme, which is short for hemoglobin. It's what carries oxygen in our blood. It's very prolific in red meat. And we found our heme from the roots of soybeans and are now grow it by using a yeast fermentation process -- and that's what gives us our heme that powers our burger. But that was just one innovation.
We worked on figuring out all the different components to meet -- protein, fat, and connective tissue. As noted for our protein source, we chose soybeans to be the base, not only because it's the most prolific plant-based protein on the planet, but it also contains all of the essential amino acids that we need in our diets. We use coconut oil and sunflower oil as our fat source, which provides that rich coating in your mouth for that great mouthfeel. Then we used a variety of culinary binders and food starches that you would find in your kitchen and restaurant kitchens to serve as the connective tissue that holds it all together. This of course was from many, many years of research.
We launched our business in 2016 with David Chang's Momofuku group in New York. We built this brand by launching with top tier restaurants and influential chefs around the world. And we intentionally scaled our business by working with some of America's best-known chains, distributors, and retailers. Today, you can go to Burger King, you can go to Starbucks, you can go to Trader Joe's or Costco, or many of your favorite retailers and foodservice operators and they carry Impossible products.
If fact, just yesterday, we announced that we're launching two SKUs in IHOP, so their 1,700 locations are now serving the Impossible Burger, as well as the Impossible Breakfast Sausage.
We’ve also done a lot of research to understand our consumers. What we've discovered is that meat eaters are ultimately driving the growth of this category: we find that 90 percent of Impossible consumers do eat meat. So it's this growing category of flexitarians – individuals who still consume meat and want to continue to consume meat, but they're just consuming less of it. They're starting to turn to these other products like ours, that still satiate that that desire for having this meaty hamburger. The top three reasons why meat-eating consumers are moving towards plant-based meat are for health, variety, and the environment. But in the end, taste is what keeps them coming back. And that's what I think sets Impossible apart from the rest – that we are relentless about taste. We also continue to iterate our product, including making an Impossible Indulgent Burger very recently.
And how does this all help feel more people with less resources? Every time you consume our product, you are ultimately using less land, less water, and producing less greenhouse gas emissions. To put the stats into perspective, if a party of four decided to consume Impossible Burgers, rather than meat burgers, that group would ultimately save 90 gallons of water, they would save the equivalent of driving 36 miles in a car from a greenhouse gas perspective, and they would save about 300 square feet of land, which is about the size of a school bus. As I noted, there are no silver bullets to the challenge ahead of us, but I do believe that Impossible can ultimately serve as part of that solution to the complex challenge we have.”
JEN MORALES, Founder and CEO, Mix Ventures, LLC
Mix Ventures LLC, a certified Minority Business Enterprise based in Cincinnati, Ohio, is credited with creating Mixicles®, the only all-natural, botanically infused, nonalcoholic juice-based mixer cubes on the market botanically infused ice-cube mixers. The brand seeks to be part of the solution to food waste by partnering with growers to upcycle surplus or “ugly” produce into a new shelf-stable format that can be more easily and widely distributed.
“Hi, I'm Jen Morales. Ever since I was little, I've wanted to do things that weren't expected of girls, and also partly to mess with people when I'd get asked, ‘What do you want to be when you grow up?’ I'd often say a garbage truck driver. And when people would ask me why, I'd say because you don't see any women driving garbage trucks. Although I went on to have an arguably more conventional career as an attorney, before I started doing Mixicles, it seemed that I was still doing things that weren't expected of women. For example, I'd walk into a deposition and people would assume I was the court reporter, never one of the lawyers. Even after I made partner at my firm, and I'd successfully resolved many disputes, I’d get asked to bring a senior male lawyer with me to negotiation for added gravitas. It was in my 16th year of practicing that I had the itch to do something different.
I started my first side business, which was an ediscovery software company. Although still law related, it gave me a taste for starting a business – something new and outside of my usual day to day role as a commercial litigator. If I hadn't started that business, I would have been less likely to jump on the idea a few years later of developing a line of botanical ice cube mixers. What I learned when starting the first company is that setting up a business is a relatively simple process. But what really beckoned me was the opportunity to work with one of my best friends and former law partner on something new and creative and innovative and completely not related to law.
We set out to create our craft drink shortcut that doesn't shortchange the drink. So Mixicles are blends of fruit and herbs and juices that we freeze in an ice cube. They store happily in your freezer until you're ready to make a drink. At that point, you pop one or two Mixicles into your glass or shaker with other ingredients. And voila, you have a fresh chilled beverage that not only evolves in flavors, you drink it, but it also doesn't get diluted like it would with regular ice cubes. And Mixicles are alcohol-free so you can really use them to make any kind of beverage.
We launched the product about two months before the pandemic, regionally in the Cincinnati area where we're from. In retail and foodservice, we then built out an e-commerce store and started offering curbside pickup and delivery, especially during the height of the pandemic, and we started doing nationwide shipping in the continental U.S. In early 2021, we had an opportunity to pitch Mixicles to Kroger. At the time, we were still just two people with day jobs, filling our ice cube trays on nights and weekends by hand. We knew we had to figure out, once we landed distribution, a way to scale production quickly. So working with a juice processor in Washington and a co-packer in Wisconsin, we were able to ultimately roll out into three Kroger divisions by Thanksgiving of that year. I'd like to say that at that point, we were off to the races, but that would not be accurate. There were issues securing shelf space in grocery stores – we were first next to frozen juices but then put next to frozen breakfast foods, which proved to be a major challenge to our fledgling brand. So we came to the realization that we needed to pivot and create a shelf-stable version of Mixicles that you freeze at home so that it could be merchandised with the other ambient drink mixers.
In doing this, I got to thinking about garbage collection, but actually more about food rescue. Because here's what really bothers me: we live in a land of such abundance that over 40 percent of food produced goes uneaten, and yet there are over 40 million Americans who are food insecure. Plus, there was a 2019 study by Santa Clara University that found even at the farm level, a third of edible produce is lost, because it's never harvested. Also, food waste is a huge source of greenhouse gas emissions. Studies show that if it were a country, it would be the third largest emitter after China in the U.S. And while the impact on the environment occurs from food loss at all stages of our food system supply chain, even at the farm level loss contributes to pollution and overuse of resources with a fifth of cropland, water, and fertilizer being used in vain on products that never get eaten.
So, as we were working on developing what I'm calling the Mixicles 2.0, I thought to myself do what else do I want to do with this product? How else can I make it better, not only for consumers, but for the growers of the food of the fruit that we put into our product as well as the planet as a whole? My vision for this next stage of our development is that we will be part of the solution to food loss and food insecurity. Yes, there are a lot of infrastructure issues to work through but I seek to partner with growers to upcycle ugly, imperfect, or surplus produce that would otherwise be discarded, or not even harvested and to create new revenue opportunities for the growers and value-added products by conserving produce in a shelf-stable format, we can not only extend its life, but also expand its distributable reach and that means more fun and flavorful drinks for everyone.”
JACQUELINE HEARD, Enko Chemical, Founder and CEO, Enko Chem, Inc.
Jacqueline Heard’s career has centered around the support of innovation in the agriculture sector through the identification and commercialization of new technology. She has been an entrepreneur, leader of global R&D, and venture investor. Heard leads Enko in its work to design safe and sustainable solutions to agricultural problems, from pest resistance to new diseases, applying drug discovery methodologies to agriculture. Enko uses DNA-encoded library screening, machine learning, and structure-based design to find novel solutions more quickly than traditional R&D methods.
“Thank you, it's fabulous to be here. It's my first conference like this. It's my first time to Nashville. And it's my first time trying moonshine – all fabulous experiences. I'm also honored to be on this panel with this group of amazing women entrepreneurs.
So let’s get started. Enko is a company that's designing crop protection chemistry to help farmers be good stewards of their land and produce productively and sustainably. We were established six years ago in 2017 and we're a venture-backed company and mission-driven company.
As a venture-backed company, you go through a series of capital raises and typically have milestones for the company that you're trying to achieve. You raise capital to achieve those milestones, you go through several iterations of this to grow and to finally, hopefully, become profitable and get to the market. Well, we've raised through our Series C so we are still in the development of our of our products. We're headquartered at a beautiful, state-of-the-art research facility in Mystic, Connecticut and we currently have 48 employees.
And as a company that is involved in development, which like with health care, drugs, crop protection, etc., has long development cycles. But these are huge products with a global potential impact, and so as a small company, we need to partner in order to get that global footprint in order to deploy our products. So we partner with the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, and we also work with Syngenta, and Bayer and others on some innovative new solutions for their product portfolio. We believe fully that if you're an innovator in this space, you need to you have a vision for the future. You're an entrepreneur, you're a change agent, you need to have a voice. So we joined the World Economic Forum in 2021. As a tech technology pioneer, we've just been elevated to being a global innovator. And so that gives us a voice on the global stage to talk more about our vision for the future to advocate for farming for agriculture. That's something that we're very proud of, and we spend a good amount of time doing.
In this 10,000-year-old industry that is agriculture, we are seeing challenges today because of supply chain shocks, climate change, and population growth, which has caused stresses on our food production systems. And the solution has always been technology innovation. You can see during the first three industrial revolutions. I call it going from muscle to mechanization; we produce more with less because we brought mechanization, we bought good crop protection inputs so we could reduce the number of people it took to produce enough food to keep up with demand.
Well, what is the next industrial revolution? You’re going to have innovations in biology, you'll have innovations in material science, but it's the ability to use AI, to use data science, to integrate those innovations, and to be able to deploy those innovations in a much more efficient way so it accelerates innovation. Enko is part of this digital future of agriculture. There are several technologies that play into this digitally driven innovation, including farm connectivity; being able to use sensors to collect data on farms so that you can address the issues without a lot of manpower; precision equipment so you can really put the right input in the right place at the right time; digital agronomy so you can use AI and machine learning to bring down the cost and increase the speed of innovation for the discovery of new inputs, which we see being applied to breeding. And now with Enko, we're seeing it applied to crop protection discovery.
As for our technology, we’ve developed a platform that we’ve branded ENKOMPASS that brings speed, low cost, technology platform to the discovery of new molecules. But then even more importantly, it brings precision, it allows us to design chemistry for purpose, so we utilize technologies that are utilized in the healthcare drug discovery space in order to design much more targeted solutions for agriculture. One of the key enablers is DNA-encoded libraries, we use that in combination with structure-based design. And then layering on top of it, the accelerant is the machine learning and AI, we structure all of our data, but we use structured and unstructured data and we use generative and regular AI. We use AI in almost everything that we do and it really gives us this efficiency.
We put all of our precision experimentation in place and go through a series of prioritizations. We have 50 programs. We develop chemistry, and then we're constantly prioritizing what it has the all the attributes that we're looking for – like a pre-emergent to fight super weeds such as palmer pigweed and resistant waterhemp. It's also it's got a great safety profile, it's got a great environmental profile, it stays on the surface of the soil where it's applied.
We are producing sustainable products that are better for the environment and thus improving society, and more importantly, helping farmers and farms be more productive and profitable.”
ANNA KIM, Director of Customer Success, Smartwyre
Anna Kim is the director of customer success at Smartwyre, a software business that offers pricing and commercial management to distributors and manufacturers of agricultural inputs (seeds, chemicals, fertilizers). She manages the relationship of a global supplier of agricultural solutions, providing real-time data for the organization and to its customers.
“All right, they save the hard stuff for last, huh? I want to start with some challenges that we're facing in modern ag today, as others have mentioned. By 2050, we know that the global population growth is expected to be at 10 billion so farmers are stretched to produce more with less on the same amount of land, facing rising costs of inputs, and less water sources as well.
We’ve also heard about the population growth happening in Asia, and Africa, and those folks are going to want to eat how Westerners eat, right? They want to eat chicken, they want to eat beef, they want to have pork, maybe the occasional Impossible Burger as well. So that means we must continually innovate to be able to feed that many more people, all the while noting that consumers are changing their preferences over time and we have to adapt to that as an agriculture sector.
Another challenge is that you've got an industry that doesn’t quite know how much the farmer is going to make or how much they're going to have to put into the ground versus how much the factories have to make. So there's a discrepancy that causes frustration and confusion in managing that inventory as well. Ag also has to react to climate change and operating more sustainably, as well as responding to a more demanding and educated consumer. But all of these changes are costly so increased efficiency and innovation is a must.
That’s where Smartwyre comes in, as we are now entering a new phase of connected commerce, where we're going to be connecting these ag input sectors together in a digital way. Our vision at Smartwyre is all about how do we get secure, connected information between trusted partners through the cloud so that it's all available real time for improved decision-making and efficiency? We're making that happen today so that the manufacturer is now able to communicate directly to the distribution channel, which then connects to the retailers and the retail advisors, all in real time. Our mission with this new technology is to build this network in the cloud, and we now have now about 90 percent of the ag industry connected in terms of the distribution channel. We offer the solutions around software technology, and data solutions and transactions. It's all about the focus around pricing, product information, and transaction data in a meaningful way that connects the industry together.”
- Michelle Pelletier Marshall is contributing editor and author for HighQuest Partners’ GAI News and Unconventional Ag, and managing editor for its WIA Today blog. Additionally, she is the company’s Senior PR/Media Manager. She can be reached at email@example.com.