The Yield Lab, which already has five companies in its portfolio from the 2015 cohort, selected 6 businesses ranging from gene technologies to frozen fish eggs. While some these companies are innovating in the data space, each is tackling unique aspects. 

Till, for example, based out of Los Gatos, California, has applied SMS technology to supply chain management. "A supermarket chain in California is using this platform to connect to local farmers because everyone likes to buy local produce in the supermarket. But it's hard to manage all those farmers in your supply chain, who may only be there for a few weeks a year," said Thad Simons, managing director of The Yield Lab.

Till helps the supermarket find out when each farmer's offerings will be ready for market, and may prove useful in revolutionizing the palm oil collection and processing market in Nigeria. Big apparel names Nike and The Gap are also getting involved.

AgVoice helps farmers capture insights on-the-go. The hands-free, voice-interactive, mobile technology prompts the farmer to answer certain questions while they are surveying their fields and puts the information into a report. The tech doesn't rely on internet connectivity to function, enhancing freedom and flexibility. Right now, the program targets crops, but animals are also on the company's radar, Simons told AgFunderNews.

Denver-based BayoTech manufactures chemical reactors for ammonia fertilizer production that carry lower capital and operating costs. The technology cuts water and energy requirements in half while also reducing the size of the facility required to produce fertilizer, allowing it to be moved closer to farms. According to Simons, this has major potential implications for Africa where a critical issue is the lack of local production.

The remaining three of the 2016 cohort are:

  • Cryoocyte, a Boston-based startup that's found a way to freeze fish eggs to overcome the seasonal underproduction issues that fish farms face.

  • Agribody Technologies, a San Diego company utilizing patented gene technology to boost yields, delay senescence, and boost resistance to stress and disease.

  • Nanoguard Technologies, located in The Yield Lab's home city of St. Louis, has created a cold plasma technology to aid in grain preservation and detoxification-two major issues facing producers.

Joining these six for the first part of 2016's programming is APSE, a company creating a cheaper way to manufacture ribonucleic acid (RNA) for RNAi interference, a biological process in which RNA molecules inhibit gene expression.

APSE, which is also based in St. Louis, started the 2015 program late so is already in The Yield Lab's portfolio.

Launched in 2014, The Yield Lab came to life when Simons, who was CEO of animal health and nutrition company Novus International for 13 years, teamed up with St Louis-based VC firm Cultivation Capital. The two firms wanted to take advantage of what they saw as a steadily rising stream of capital moving toward food and agriculture innovation.

Its investment thesis is rather simple: "Sustainably increase world food supply or improve productivity from farm to fork."

This direct, yet broad mandate is perhaps part of the reason that The Yield Lab's portfolio includes an array of companies innovating in a variety of spaces. "The technologies we are looking at are quite diverse," said Simons. "It's going to be a very fun year."

So what do Simons and the rest of The Yield Lab team look for when weeding through the substantial number of applications they receive?

"The first thing is going to be the team. We ask whether there is a team that knows what they are doing, knows what they need and whether there is some value our team can bring to them," he said.

"We also look for some level of intellectual property," he added. "It doesn't have to be a patent, just some reason why we think the company has a chance once the product is in the market to secure a position."

The Yield Lab targets a five-year exit for its portfolio, but it's open to shorter or longer timeframes depending on the opportunity.

In considering so many different teams and technologies, Simons has picked up a few insightful observations about agtech. "If you look at most entrepreneurs in the ag space, they aren't all young. They are very experienced people from the industry for the most part," he explained.

"What's interesting about this is that they don't have much experience in early capital fundraising, and I think that's where we put a lot of attention-term sheets and valuations. They haven't grown up with this, and they don't have the network that all the kids in IT grew up with, including friends they can talk to or consult for peer mentoring."

While industry experience is certainly valuable, Simons thinks the lack of fundraising savvy can be detrimental to companies, including graduates of The Yield Lab. "Last year there were a couple of our companies that received follow-on funding, but I don't think they got the terms they could have got if they were better informed about how the system works."

Simons has also observed trends in entrepreneur activity; biologicals and microbes have become hot, including developments for animals, plants, and humans. But animal health and nutrition - Simons' specialism at Novus - has been less of a focus for entrepreneurs.

"There's been quite a bit of work in replacing antibiotics with probiotics-that's very active-but I haven't seen the application of information systems or big data in the animal health space," he said.

The Yield Lab is bullish about the animal health segment, however, as Simons and his colleagues are considering opening an office in Kansas City to invest better in the subsector.

And if you're a tech startup innovating in the animal health space, you may have missed The Yield Lab's recent application round, but you're still in luck. "We will talk to companies at any time of the year, and occasionally we invest off-cycle," said Simons. "We can do a few of those. We are on the lookout."

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