Heuermann Lecture panel touts Nebraska’s ag tech strength

Heuermann Lecture panel touts Nebraska’s ag tech strength
Jordyn Bader discusses her work with the ag-tech startup Marble Technologies during the Heuermann Lecture on May 29. She was part of a panel of ag-tech entrepreneurs that also included (from left) Shane Forney of Sentinel Fertigation; Chad Johnson of Grain Weevil; Jacob Hansen of ALA Engineering; and Jessica Korinek of Nave Analytics.
June 6th, 2024 | Geitner Simmons | IANR Media

Advanced ag technology has gained important momentum in recent years, and Nebraska is playing a key leadership role. A panel of entrepreneurs and business analysts spoke in detail on that theme during a May 29 symposium at Nebraska Innovation Campus.

The presentations and discussions, part of the Heuermann Lecture series, described Nebraska’s strengths in ag tech, including the state’s diversity of startups, increase in ag-focused venture capital, and large-scale strategic investments enabling research innovations and commercialization.

“One of the key factors for our company’s success is being in the heartland of agriculture,” said Jordyn Bader, director of industry partnerships for Marble Technologies, a Lincoln-based ag tech firm. “There is truly no better place in this country to be an entrepreneur and scientist who wants to contribute to the food and ag innovation space.”

Ambitious forays in ag tech development earlier this century did not pan out in part because they were led by coastal-based corporations that lacked deep understanding of agriculture, said Mike Jung, co-founder and managing partner of Grit Road Partners, an Omaha-based company that provides investment support for ag-tech entrepreneurs in the Midwest. That history shows that a solid understanding of agriculture is imperative for successful ag tech ventures, and Nebraska’s agricultural expertise gives it a major advantage, panelists said.

A recent U.S. Department of Agriculture report pointed to another strength for Nebraska — the state ranks second in the nation in the use of precision ag technology, said Josh DeMers, program manager of The Combine, which provides supports for Nebraska food- and ag-focused startups.

Since 2019, The Combine has raised $15.5 million, received $5.7 million in grants and helped 28 companies. Several of the startups on the discussion panel received early-stage support from The Combine’s business incubator at Nebraska Innovation Campus.

The panel’s membership illustrated the breadth of innovation and business visioning in Nebraska’s ag tech ecosystem.

Marble Technologies uses machine learning and engineering innovations to enable meat processing automation. Sentinel Fertigation’s advanced crop imagery and data analysis help producers achieve nitrogen management savings. Grain Weevil’s robotics innovations promote grain bin safety. Nave Analytics boosts producers’ irrigation efficiency via data collection and climate modeling. ALA Engineering’s software and hardware innovations enable feed truck automation.

The University of Nebraska–Lincoln is set to expand its support for startups by building an ag- and natural resources-focused business accelerator at Nebraska Innovation Campus. The accelerator will complement the USDA’s adjacent National Center for Resilient and Regenerative Precision Agriculture, which is now being built.

The $160 million federal research laboratory will focus on innovations in advanced ag technology and natural resources sustainability and is expected to double the USDA’s science and support staff presence at the university.

UNL’s accelerator will convert the USDA center’s research findings into business opportunities. Mike Boehm, vice chancellor for the university’s Institute of Agriculture and Natural Resources, described the new business accelerator as “The Combine on steroids.”

These strategic investments reinforce each other, Boehm said, and illustrate that “what happens first in ag innovation begins in Nebraska.”

Only a few years ago, venture capital investors and entrepreneurs showed little interest in advanced technology for agriculture, but ag tech has since been making notable advances on the innovative and investment front, said Yung, with Grit Road Partners. Since 2021 his company has raised more than $11 million and made 18 investments in ag tech across the Midwest, including eight investments in Nebraska.

In 2011, Nebraska tied for last among the 50 states for overall venture capital investment, but now the state is consistently around 30th place, said Ben Williamson, principal and general counsel for Invest Nebraska, which provides investment capital to early-stage startups. Nebraska’s ranking is positive because it is higher than the state’s 35th-place ranking for economic output.

Challenges the panelists described included common ones for startups, such as early-stage complications and developing certainty regarding markets and pricing. Jacob Hansen said his company, ALA Engineering, would benefit if federal authorities clarified regulations about robotics.

Startups would benefit from greater interest from corporations, to set up potential “exits” as startups are absorbed and benefit from greater capitalization and support, said Chad Johson, a Grain Weevil co-founder from Aurora.

One reason gaining such corporate attention is difficult, said Invest Nebraska’s Williamson, is that “the unit of measurement of progress in entrepreneurship is decades, not years, in terms of ecosystem growth. But if you’re in entrepreneurship, that’s an eternity” for individual startups.

Bader, with Marble Technologies, pointed to the university’s Engler Agribusiness Entrepreneurship Program as another source of strength for Nebraska ag tech. The Engler program, begun in 2012 and now with more than 340 alumni, is “one of the gems of the University of Nebraska system,” said Bader, an Ainsworth native and alumna of the program. More than 230 of those Engler alumni are living, working and growing businesses in Nebraska.

The Engler program is proving its value in giving students in-depth experience in real-world business conditions, Bader said. When her company sees that a job applicant’s resume includes an Engler connection, “that carries a lot of weight for us.”

The Heuermann Lecture series is made possible through a gift from B. Keith and Norma Heuermann of Phillips, Nebraska. The Heuermanns are longtime university supporters with a strong commitment to Nebraska’s production agriculture, natural resources, rural areas and people.


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