The Midwest Entrepreneurial Ecosystem: Opportunities and Challenges
by Kevin Kimle
We launched the Ag Startup Engine to fill a gap in funding and mentoring agtech startups in Iowa. While we’re excited about the progress the existing portfolio businesses have made to date, we recognize that our work fills only one niche in what could be a much more vibrant ecosystem for agricultural entrepreneurs.
Specific challenges to a more vibrant entrepreneurial ecosystem include the following.
Funding – The right money at the right time for each startup business is always a challenge. The good news is that there are many more sources for early-stage funds than 20 years ago. The popularity of shows such as Shark Tank has led to a proliferation of competitions that often have financial prizes, and is a cultural phenomenon that shouldn’t be discounted. There are pitch and business plan competitions, incubation and accelerator programs, a greater array of local and regional funds today than ever before.
Mentoring – Most startup success stories will also have stories about key mentors that provided key advice and perspective at key times. Entrepreneurs break rules and make mistakes in an effort to drive their businesses forward. As with funding, mentoring programs are now much more common than 20 years ago. However, the most valuable mentors for entrepreneurs are entrepreneurs, and those can be difficult to find depending on where you live. For entrepreneurs working to build high-growth businesses, the best advice will come from those who have built their own high-growth businesses. But the number of individuals who have ‘done it’ is not high, especially in a region with lower population density.
Change-making culture – An element of support for entrepreneurs is cultural. A culture that is accepting of the risks and contrarian nature of new ideas is important. The friendly and egalitarian culture of the Midwest may at times be at odds with widespread celebration of entrepreneurial rule-breaking and risk-taking. There is an old saying in the Midwest that’s indicative of a culture that, at times, may not be conducive to entrepreneurs: “Nothing is punished in a small town like success.”
Agglomeration – Economists view agglomeration as an issue important in economic development in that firms and professionals from an industry are often located near to each other. This concept relates to the idea of economies of scale and network effects. As more firms in related fields of business cluster together, their costs of production may decline significantly (firms have competing multiple suppliers; bigger talent pool; greater specialization and division of labor result). Cities form and grow to exploit economies of agglomeration. But what about the Midwest and agriculture? By its nature, agriculture is spread out. The biggest concentration of agricultural production in the U.S. is in the middle of the continent while the highest populations densities are on the coasts. While it’s a good thing that cities and agriculture don’t on a large scale compete for land in the U.S., it also means that agricultural professionals and entrepreneurs don’t have the agglomeration effects of industries like infotech in the Bay area of California, entertainment in the Los Angeles area of California, or finance in New York City, New York.
On the other side of each of these challenges lie opportunities. Agtech investing and the popularization of it as a sector unto itself now results in websites, funds, conferences and other events that enable coordination, new relationships and other positive spillover effects. For the agtech ecosystem in the Midwest to continue to become more vibrant three things are critical.
1. Expose more young people to the concept that entrepreneurship is an option – Whether university programs or even high school programs, young people will benefit from being exposed to entrepreneurship. Fewer young people today grow up in families with farms and small businesses, so we need them to meet entrepreneurs and small business owners and have experiences that expose them to the idea that they can not only someday get a job, but also make a job.
2. Continue to develop more forms of early-stage funding – The more sources of funding for early-stage startups, the richer array of startup businesses that will emerge. Competitive filters on funding, whether a pitch competition or review panels for government programs, are important not only to insure the best ideas rise to the top but also to institutionalize feedback loops. The more sources of early feedback for aspiring entrepreneurs, both positive and negative, the better off they will be.
3. More Midwestern funds – The development of more professional funds in the region, whether angel, seed, venture, private equity, or whatever will benefit the region. Investors from one region and entrepreneurs from another can work sometimes, of course, but location matters. If there are more funds in the Midwest, there will be more investing in the Midwest. While venture capital invested in the Midwest rose from $1.8 billion in 2007 to $4.0 billion in 2017, this represented only 4.7% of the total in the U.S. in 2017, making the Midwest a poor performer in terms of per capita venture capital investing (National Venture Capital Association Data).
The development and commercialization of agricultural technologies will result in a more productive and sustainable agriculture. The process of farm to fork will be more automated, connected, sensed, and traced. We’re pleased that the Ag Startup Engine can help facilitate more agtech activity in Iowa, but look forward to building on what’s been done to date by working with others from across the Midwest and elsewhere to create tomorrow’s agriculture.