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Many agricultural technology entrepreneurs are farmers who have gone to their garages or workshops to build mechanical devices that solve common agrarian problems. To serve these inventors, representatives from the county government of Ottawa, Michigan, developed the Great Lakes agricultural business incubator.
This three-year program – piloted in 2014 and now operating as an independent non-profit organization – does not correlate startups in a common workspace. Instead, participants work solo at home, periodically meeting with mentors in county government conference rooms to work on the marketing of their equipment, machinery, software, or other ag-tech inventions.
“Farmers are very independent,” says Mark Knudsen, executive director of the incubator. “Many of them do not want to rub suits and ties.” But if a participant needs an office, workshop or warehouse, the incubator will negotiate an agreement with the regional owners, he says.
LikendisLikes receive advice on patents and trademarks, focus groups, pilot programs, prices, manufacturing, distribution and marketing. In exchange, they agree to give the incubator 2 percent of their gross annual sales once their businesses become profitable, with a contract buyout available after nine years.
So far, half a dozen Michigan-based companies have joined the incubator. The program considers startups of all stages, as long as the profit potential is high. “Our goal is to have 15 high-quality businesses after three years,” says Knudsen.
GrassRoots Energy, which manufactures $ 100,000 to $ 500,000 of ethanol extraction machines, is one such company. “We had the operating system,” says co-founder Frank Van Kempen. “But the planning of activities and the authorizations granted by the government – all that was beyond our capabilities.”
Great Lakes Ag-Tech has already helped GrassRoots plan, market and authorize its products.
“They gave us a shot in the arm,” says Van Kempen, who hopes to sell one or two machines this year and 10 in 2020. “They opened doors for us.”