Last year, there was almost $17 billion invested in agrifood tech startups. As this industry continues to grow, the number one innovation platform and accelerator in the world is setting its eyes on the midwest. Plug and Play is based out of Silicon Valley and acts as both an accelerator and investment firm. We caught up with Elaine Shuang Qiu to talk about why they’re setting their sights on the midwest and doubling down on agriculture.
Can you tell us where Plug and Play is at right now in coming to North Dakota?
We’re always exploring opportunities and communities where Plug and Play can provide value. As we’ve started to focus more on areas such as agriculture innovation, we’ve teamed up with partners, such as Bremer Bank to further engage with the North Dakota community of entrepreneurs and innovators.
Talk about some of the innovations that have occurred in the food and agriculture space thanks to Plug and Play.
As with most things, innovation can happen through mutual collaboration; this yields more than the sum of the individual companies involved. At Plug and Play, we’ve set out to be a platform that helps connect, empower and invest in tomorrow’s innovators. With that being said, our primary role is enabling changemakers to have significant impacts. We are fortunate to have a strong network of stakeholders across the Food and Agriculture supply chains that entrepreneurs can leverage.
Where do you see the most exciting innovations coming in the way agriculture and the future of food are done?
I often refer to “cross-pollination” as the most exciting puzzle piece for future agriculture and food. Most innovations are powered by either fundamental science break-throughs or innovative applications of technology from other industries. As more and more technologies become mature (such as gene-editing, artificial intelligence, etc.), this creates excellent opportunities for the traditional food and agriculture industry to embrace and learn. For example, in recent years, the power of big data and the power of bio-information has started being adopted in agriculture use-cases, when historically this technology was concentrated in Silicon Valley tech companies. We are entering an exciting era where farm data can be aggregated and used to create data-driven farming decision systems and smart predictive analytic models. Individual growers, specifically, can benefit from recent advancements in technologies, such as in-field IoT sensors, imaging/computer-vision analytics, cloud computing, autonomous vehicles and blockchain, just to name a few.
Twenty years from now, I think the farmer-consumer relationship will be much more transparent – mainly due to the increased visibility into the food production process and supply chain.”Elaine Shuang Qiu
Since you’re an investor of FoodTech and ag-tech, how is the work being done now in agriculture going to play into feeding the growing global population?
This question is always top of mind for me. It seems like everyone who’s working in the food and ag space is ultimately trying to solve that one universal problem: how will we feed more people? Despite how simple this question may seem, entrepreneurs offer many different ways to address this, which ranges from plant-based meat to fermentation tech, etc. We’ve seen rapid growth in this sector to the point that a few of the venture-backed market leaders like Impossible Foods and Beyond Meat have even had IPOs. Some solutions, such as those made by the aforementioned companies, are readily available, whereas others require a longer time horizon to bring to market. We are at a stage that more and more optimistic players are entering the space – not only entrepreneurs but also investors, advocates and organizations. Solving a giant puzzle, piece by piece, is what we are aiming for. Whether it’s through autonomous farm operations or air-to-protein fermentation, startups are collectively making positive impacts on society, providing through their innovative solutions.
Twenty years from now, what do you think the relationship between farmer and the consumer will be? Do you think we’ll see more of a farm to table approach or will the mass production of food continue?
Twenty years from now, I think the farmer-consumer relationship will be much more transparent – mainly due to the increased visibility into the food production process and supply chain. It’s worth mentioning though that due to modern complexity, our food system today, for the most part, prohibits direct connections between farmers and consumers. This is a by-product of massive industry consolidation and fewer local farms. As a result of urbanization movements, consumers are even further in the supply chain and have to rely on public disclosure and communication channels as bridges to connect with their food producers. We are seeing more efforts being made here to increase industry transparency, promote awareness and build consumer trust.
Many times, people’s perception of “mass production” is negative, compared with the subtle messages implied in farm-to-table, e.g., healthy, fresh, better for you. I’ve always had mixed feelings about this because industrial agriculture production can provide the same level of high-quality foods, just like any local-grown food option. The word “mass” should be viewed through the lens of supply chain effectiveness and less derogatory. To meet the food demand of our increasing population, we need to support industrial agriculture production efforts. It’s inevitable. I think people who advocate for “farm to table” are primarily concerned about freshness and environmental impact/oversight, which is being addressed through both supply chain optimization and more sustainable farming practices. It’s not either a farm-to-table or mass-production question, we need both and need to support having diversified food sources (e.g. industrial farming, aquaculture, vertical farming, community-supported agriculture, bioengineering foods, greenhouses production, etc.). This will help create resilience in our food supply and will help us overcome the stress of increasing demand and food scarcity challenges that we’ll be forced to face in the near future.
These are three startups that Plug and Play is investing in that Shuang Qiu believes consumers should watch out for.
KETOS sits at the intersection of data science, IoT and water automation. KETOS serves an array of industrial and agricultural enterprises, commercial businesses, institutions, cities and utilities, empowering them to make smarter decisions through real-time water intelligence and predictive analytics. Our innovative, patented hardware and intelligent, interactive KETOS SmartFabric provides a robust software platform for predictive and actionable metrics – delivering the tools and insights needed to optimize water usage, ensure resource sustainability and provide water safety assurance.
AgVend is an online marketplace that enables farmers to purchase inputs and services from trusted ag retailers. Similar to a travel marketplace like Priceline, farmers can search for products, filter results (based on price, delivery, bundled services, etc.) and select the option that best fits their needs. AgVend enables transactions to happen anywhere and at anytime.
BeeHero maximizes crop yields through pollination. The company’s technology combines sophisticated machine learning algorithms with low-cost sensors to stimulate full output potential during peak pollination cycles. By tracking and optimizing pollination in real-time, BeeHero ensures hyper-efficient pollinators that can increase crop yields by 30 percent on average. Beehero’s platform already enables commercial growers to optimize crop-yield for 70 percent of major commercial crops and they’ve even had tested on soybean! Based in California and operating globally, BeeHero manages the largest database of bees and pollination. The company has traction working with farmers and industry groups, including the largest association of almond growers in the world.