At the recent Slow Money event, one of the highlights was listening to pitches from 30 ag entrepreneurs on everything from greenhouses to rice varietals. Here are some examples:
StockBox places miniature grocery stores – refitted shipping containers – in food deserts, areas where full grocery stores are unavailable. Each container is just under 200ft2, yet offers a 300 item inventory including dairy, meat, grains and produce, the kind of products that it’s often tough to find in the 7-11 or gas station that tare the main food source for many food desert residents. Based on the company’s trial store in a South Seattle parking lot, each store can serve 250-300 households and breakeven in around 6 months. The first permanent store is set for spring 2012, and they’ll be targeting an additional store in urban locations every 6 months. As the management explains their concept, it’s “an old fashioned corner store with a twist”.
It’s no great secret that antibiotic use in farm animals is a major issue: the European Parliament just voted for a resolution that calls to end the use of preventative antibiotics on farms. Bovinity Health was founded by a practicing Pennsylvania vet – Hubert Karreman – to provide an antibiotic alternative for organic cows. Organic animals must be permanently removed from the herd if treated with regular antibiotics. His compound is based on one developed in Russia during the Cold War era and has benefits in terms of price and delivery. Cattle need to be injected daily for 4 days with conventional antibiotics, whereas the Bovinity solution is one shot, and it’s cheaper than common conventional antibiotics. To date, the startup has focused on the country’s 250,000 organic cows, but they’re now working on expansion into the 9 million cattle per year conventional market.
There are plenty of community supported agriculture(CSA) companies in the country that follow the same basic business model: consumers pay a fixed amount each week and get a box of produce from local farmers. While many – especially in big cities – do just fine, others struggle with reaching critical mass and with logistics, so it was good to see a variation on the model from Capay Valley. Based an hour from the Bay Area, the company sources from 30 family farms and delivers direct to large corporates, such as, Oracle, Adobe and Chevron year round (most CSAs are seasonal). They’ve also been smart about the way that they use technology: you can self order through an “online pantry”, manage your own account and use automatic billing. The company says that it’s hit $600,000 in annual revenue, and is planning to double their employees in the next 3 years.
Founded in 1995 by Ken Lee, Lotus Foods works with farmers to supply specialty rice varieties under the Forbidden Ricebrand name. They revive heirloom varietals, and – in some cases – pay fairtrade premiums to small crop farmers. One concern among those interested in sustainable agriculture is the reduction in farm biodiversity – the variety of crops and genetic components – that we’ve seen over the past 50 years or so, and Lotus Foods’ work plays a part in combating this. Their range includes gluten free, wheat free and GMO products among others, and is distributed through large supermarket chains such as Publix, Wholefoods and Safeway. Their current focus is varieties that use less water and less seed to produce the same volume of rice. The company says that it expects to be profitable next year.
Vestaron develops natural insecticides, created from peptides derived from spider venom. They’re environmentally benign, and not toxic to mammals, so they’re likely to be usable in households as well as farms eventually. Trials of the first product took place on farms in 2009 and showed the same efficacy in beetles and caterpillars as regular insecticides but, with further development work and regulatory approvals still to go, the company doesn’t expect to have its first product on the market until 2013. In the meantime, they’ve picked up a substantial grant from a Gates Foundation backed initiative to work on mosquito control products.