As a new crop of female founders, funders, and farmers emerge to tackle global issues of food security for a growing world, we examine the challenges and opportunities faced by five of the sector’s most influential women.
At the confluence of agriculture and technology, women are working to solve one of the most critical issues of planetary survival: ensuring food security for the world’s burgeoning population. In laboratories and classrooms, in pitch sessions and incubators, in the fields and on the trading floor, women are finding their place in agtech.
While 31 percent of American farmers are women, some of agetch’s newest leaders come from outside traditional agricultural channels. “I don't have a background in agriculture. I didn't grow up in an ag family. I worked in financial services,” said Kellee James, founder and CEO of Mercaris, a market data and trading platform for organic and non-GMO commodities launched in 2012.
Before taking on agtech full time, the former Obama White House and Aspen Institute Catto Environmental Fellow worked for the Chicago Climate Exchange, the first electronic trading platform and registry for environmental derivatives.
“My experience starting out was with a brand new commodities exchange. We had a cash market in carbon and renewable energy and other environmental products, and then we launched futures and options for those same products. We were a derivatives market,” she explained.
The idea for Mercaris came from the realization that organic and non-gmo commodities such as corn, soybeans, and wheat could benefit from futures and options trading. While these organic staples have the same price volatility as their conventionally grown cousins, the value of the market was too small to support liquid derivatives.
“We took a step back and said, ‘Before we can even think about these other, fancier tools, we have to have really good data on the cash market.’ For that reason, Mercaris became a data and information service where we track cash market prices.”
Additionally, Mercaris tracks the economic indicators that combine to influence price, such as supply and demand, certified organic acreage, processing capacity, and imports and exports.
For James, entering agtech on the organic side proved to be something of an unexpected challenge.
“Mercaris was not a known brand. Overcoming that was sort of a trust factor within the organic community, the organic supply chain,” she noted. “In the conventional agricultural world, organic is still, in some ways, a niche, a wild west that is sometimes looked at with suspicion if not outright hostility. Those are some of the things we're still overcoming.”
Finding Synergy Across Industries – EVIO Labs
“The majority of my career was spent as a management consultant in the energy and tech industries, and I launched a couple of startups along the way,” said Lori Glauser, co-founder, COO, and director of cannabis testing firm EVIO Labs.
“I originally worked as an engineer in nuclear power, and of course we worked under very stringent regulations, so I was indoctrinated into the importance of both working to and preparing very solid operating procedures and enforcing them,” she recalled. “When I moved into management consulting I initially started working in project finance. That meant building fairly complex project financial models, for projects as large as entire power plants or entire transmission systems for a small country.”
As an Ernst and Young consultant, Glauser did a great deal of business process design and development, as well as auditing. “All my experiences those days culminated to this point and launching the lab business.”
She launched EVIO Labs in the summer of 2014. Barely four years later, EVIO is the leading national provider of accredited cannabis testing, serving North America’s agricultural and biomedical sectors.
“In that first year we worked with entrepreneurs across the industry in various sectors. We had an opportunity to work with a small testing lab in Bend, Oregon about seven months in, and we started looking into testing and saw that, one, it was an underserved need, and two, it aligned with my personal values. It was an industry of compliance and public health and safety, and it really resonated with me and my partner as far as an area that would work well for us personally.”
Glauser’s track record in regulatory compliance and consulting was the perfect jumping off point for entering into the highly regulated worlds of both cannabis and laboratory practice.
“It prepared me well for understanding systems and understanding a financial model for a complex system is more than just the numbers behind it, understanding all of the inputs all outputs, the entire supply chain. What I found when I was introduced to cannabis is that the dynamics of understanding and modeling something as complex as a brand new industry with multiple layers of wholesale, production, and retail and how that all works together wasn’t much of a stretch to me to shift my thinking from where I was then to where I am today.”
While working for an urban greenhouse operator in New York City, Allison Kopf envisioned ways to improve indoor farming with analytics. The result: Agrilyst, winner of the TechCrunch 2015 Disrupt SF startup competition.
“If we think of the growth in our society over the next 10 to 20 and 50 years, one of the biggest challenges facing us is population growth and how we feed and meet the demands of that population,” Kopf said. “There are efficiency gains that need to be happening in terms of producing more food: it’s estimated that we have to produce about 70% more food by 2050 in order to just feed the population.”
Kopf founded Agrilyst to help the indoor farming industry scale profitably, efficiently, and sustainably through the application of data and analytics.
“It’s important for us to understand how a farmer can use data to make smarter decisions for their business,” she noted. “It’s really challenging to operate indoor farming businesses. They’re expensive; on the capex side it takes a lot of capital to actually start a farm, and despite the benefits of indoor farming it is capital intensive in an operating sense.”
For growers, understanding the intricacies of their crops and markets is make or break.
“If a corn farmer is farming for 40 years they've got 40 chances to use data to make a better decision. Just 40 chances, because you have seasonal production.”
Indoor facilities allow for different, and more productive growth cycles.
“In an indoor facility, I can make decisions based on data every single day. When farmers don’t use that data it can be detrimental to the business. The way that we look at software, it's about collecting the right data, analyzing it and then giving it back to growers in ways they can use it to improve their margins.”
Growth at the Seed Stage - KinoSol
A field trip to the Food for Thought global business conference during Mikayla Sullivan’s freshman year at Iowa State sparked her desire to change the world through agtech.
“After seeing all of these really cool ideas that entrepreneurs from around the world had come up with, I knew it was something I was really interested in participating in. I reached out to other students at university and we formed a team.”
Together, that team of like-minded young souls developed the Orenda, a mobile food dehydrator that operates without electricity or solar panels. That was in 2014.
The Orenda would become Sullivan’s first product launched from their company, KinoSol.
“There’s a lot of focus on increasing food supply, but we already produce so much food. There’s enough food to feed the population at the moment, but so much of it goes to waste.
“That’s how we decided to focus on food that was already produced but going to waste, whether on the consumer level or at the post-harvest level, whether it be from lack of infrastructure, lack of technology or just access to market. We looked at ways to improve that value chain and came up with a couple of different ideas.”
After considering a solar powered fridge, aquaculture, and other approaches, they arrived at dehydration.
“We found along the way that a lot of the farmers we’d been working with saw the benefits of drying food so it wouldn’t go to waste, but they were more interested in using the technology to generate additional income. We had to switch our focus and market as an income generation tool so they can dry the fruits and veg they have on their farm that would otherwise go to waste, and then take them to the market and sell them for significantly higher prices because the food has a longer shelf life and is a lot more stable.”
Sullivan’s journey is just slightly over four years long; KinoSol works with for profit distributors in eastern Africa to reach the communities and farmers who need the technology most.
“We wholesale the product to them because they have the relationships set up within the rural communities and farmers and they can integrate the product in their existing product lines.” A version of the dehydrator for use in temperate, non-equatorial climates and urban settings is in the prototype stage.
“My father was a scientist. He's actually retired now, but science was a big part of our family,” revealed Kristi Snell, Ph.D., Vice President of Research and Chief Science Officer for Yield10 Bioscience. “I saw that he got to go to a lot of conferences and interesting places, it seemed like science was a neat career.”
An expert in the metabolic engineering of plants and microbes for the production of novel products and increased plant yield, Snell’s work focuses on increasing crop yield through carbon fixation, also known as carbon capture.
“Starting from the beginning, all plants use photosynthesis to convert carbon from carbon dioxide in the air into sugars,” she explained. “They use these sugars to fuel their growth. What we're trying to do is increase photosynthesis so that the plants can capture more carbon and convert it to more sugar, so they have more sugar to grow so that they can deliver increased yield.”
Directing increased carbon flow to the seed is especially important in row crop farming.
“In the US, the major row crops are soybeans and corn. What we're trying to do in soybeans, for example, is to increase photosynthesis—the amount of carbon that the soybean plant can capture and then hopefully direct that carbon to the seed, so that when the farmer plants that crop, they can produce and harvest more seed per acre. The farmer can get more revenue per acre of land, and also has more soybean as food and as seed.”
Representation Matters: Taking a Seat at the Table
Female entrepreneurs in agtech get hit with a double whammy from the male-dominated agricultural sector as well from the tech sector, where women are still in the minority of those receiving funding for their startup companies. Overall, women receive only 2.7% of the available VC funding for their startups, despite founding companies twice as often as their male counterparts. For women of color and people of color in general, that figure slips to an unconscionable less than one percent.
“As an African-American woman I'm a double minority,” James said. “Less than half a percent of black women have gotten venture capital funding above a million dollars. It's lonely. I wish there were more of us, more women, more people of color.”
Kopf agrees. “Any sector that doesn't take diversity into consideration is setting itself up for failure. It's a smart business decision to be a diverse team,” she exhorted. “On the whole, ag is stuck in this world that it's been stuck in for decades because you've got white men across the board owning the majority of the agricultural acreage in the world. Then you have a second-class system of workers who are treated very poorly who, notoriously, are not in that same class. We need to evolve into a system that is more diverse and also mirrors the population that we’re serving.”
There are niches within agtech where women are readily accepted, one of them being the emerging cannabis sector. “I was a mechanical engineer and worked in engineering for some time and have always worked in male dominated industries,” recalled Glauser. “Cannabis is typically a subsector of agtech, and it’s quite female friendly compared to what I had experienced in the past.
“However, there are some times when you’re the only woman. It’s most pronounced when I’m working in the financial arena; for instance, we’re a publicly traded company so it’s even more pronounced when we’re working with investors. The financial side of business tends to be male dominated, and you’re going to run into challenges – like being out at a conference and being mistaken for somebody’s spouse when you’re the executive. There’s a slightly different kind of energy when you’re the only woman in the room, and sometimes you can gain attention in some ways that men would not.”
It’s not enough to get a seat at the table; once there, women must upend expectations to make room for a new generation of entrepreneurs. “We have a very different mindset than a lot of men do. Not saying that one is better than the other, but we think about things from a different mindset and perspective,” Sullivan stated. “Sometimes that allows us to come up with more creative ideas or think about things in a different way. Just understanding that your ideas are valid, and that just because you’re a woman doesn’t mean you don’t understand the space or the sector.”
“There are very systemic issues when it comes to gender-related issues within our space, and from being a VC-backed company. That's a double whammy of Ag and tech,” Kopf pointed out.
However, she sees a burgeoning interest in biotechnology and crop science as areas within agtech that are particularly hospitable to female leadership. “When you look at the research positions right now for the big corporate companies, the Monsantos and Bayers of the world, a large percentage of leadership positions in research are held by women. While we lag behind in terms of tech companies who raise VC funding, there are a lot of women in research and R&D positions in the states.”
As a student, some of Snell’s most influential science instructors in high school–teaching the most challenging courses like physics and calculus–were women. “I was able to look at them and see, yes they're successful, they're doing science and they're doing well in science.”
She continued, ““We have a responsibility to young people to make women scientists more visible and have visible role models for girls, especially when they're in middle school and high school. If they can see people that are like them, or what they think they'll grow up to be, and being successful in all fields of science then they'll be more likely to think that yes, I can see myself succeeding in this field. This might be a field that I can work in, too.”
Advice From the Field
“Try to get the most diverse education possible. You'll still need to major in one subject, but you should take that computer course, take that bioinformatics course, get that broad education so that you will be able to communicate across this likely very broad research team that you'll be on. Those people that can communicate and collaborate with a broad range of people will be the ones that have an advantage in the coming new agbiotech industry.”
-- Kristi Snell, Ph.D, Chief Science Officer and VP Research, Yield10 Bioscience
“I really had not thought of myself as an entrepreneur; it wasn't on the list of things I wanted to be when I grew up. After getting a few years of experience in the workplace, working on other similar type commodity markets, it became clear that there was a need and that I was the one to launch it. I looked around and saw something that could exist and should exist. Getting started was sheer will. You've got to have a strong commitment to get these things off the ground because, especially in the beginning, it's nothing but willpower.”
-- Kellee James, Founder and CEO, Mercaris
“My biggest advice to any entrepreneur is to know your customer base better than anybody else on the planet. Spend time on the farm, become an expert on the customer base that you are serving, and everything else will fall in line from there because if you service your customer with a product that actually provides value and that customers love, you'll have success whether you're looking to raise money or not. It doesn't matter what path you’re taking. Above all, spend time on the farm.”
-- Allison Kopf, Founder and CEO, Agrilyst
“There’s tremendous opportunity. It’s still growing, even accelerating. But, particularly under the current regulatory environment, it’s extremely challenging. Anybody coming into the industry has to be prepared to navigate a whole myriad of changing regulations. Not only are they stringent, they change very frequently as states are working out how best to regulate this industry. What we find, as multistate operators, is that we have to follow different regulations in every state we operate in, and that can be challenging as well. The attractiveness of this industry has brought in a whole lot of people so it’s very competitive. Be prepared for a lot of competition.”
-- Lori Glauser, co-founder, COO, and director of EVIO Labs
“It can sometimes be really intimidating, but you just have to get out there and do it, and not necessarily worry about it at the beginning. When we started, we had a lot of people tell us that our idea wasn’t necessarily going to work because we weren’t engineers or we weren’t food scientists, and we didn’t have all the proper mathematical equations to back up our product. One of the things that helped us – whether it was us just being very persistent or being slightly naïve in understanding that we were maybe trying to tackle this huge global problem–was that we just got out there and started prototyping. Our product worked whether or not we had all those mathematical equations to back it up.
“Getting out there and seeing the validation that the product worked spurred us to keep going. Find that support system that believes in your idea and product and what you’re doing, and most importantly, believe in you to give you that additional motivation to keep going.”
-- Mikayla Sullivan, founder, KinoSol