Cornell Tech Company: Agronomic Technology Corp (Part 1), Guest Post by Deb Eichten

Cayuga Venture Fund recently closed an investment in a company called Agronomic Technology Corp (ATC).  The underlying tech was developed at Cornell (like many of the companies in the CVF portfolio).  Completely unrelated to CVF’s investment, Deb Eichten, who is on the staff at Entrepreneurship at Cornell, recently interviewed the founders of ATC.  Deb follows many Cornell companies and writes about them for various Cornell publications and media outlets.

So, the following fits into both of my professional worlds (Cornell and CVF).  Hope you enjoy it.

Pioneering Better Ag through Big Data

Part 1 of 2 part posting by guest blogger Debra Eichten, Entrepreneurship at Cornell staff, interview with the founders of Agronomic Technology.

Nitrogen feeds half the world’s crops, but 50% of it can be lost to variable soil, crop and weather dynamics.   This leads to wasted expense, lower yields, and environmental degradation through greenhouse gas emissions and runoff. For more than a decade Harold van Es, Cornell Professor  and Chair of CALS Department of Crop and Soil Sciences, has lead a team of researchers and analytical  software developers  to create a modelling tool which would help address these issues. The resulting product adapt-N  has become the initial offering of Agronomic Technology.

Entrepreneurship at Cornell [EaC] spoke with the founders of Agronomic Technology about the challenges of being pioneers for a new era in agriculture.

[EaC] What advice do you have for students and faculty members with research backgrounds looking at entrepreneurship?

[Professor Harold van Es]: “I am a scientist who has some computational skills in terms of being able to do some coding but we engaged a professional developer to generate a prototype. There are actually four people named on the IP and it was a multi-disciplinary project…This was the first product to come out of our department.”

After working together for about 5 years in a high technology company, Greg Levow (Cornell, Dyson ’04) and Steve Sibulkin  were interested in identifying a new market where they could leverage their expertise in cloud technology to “do good for the world” and make money in the process.  Greg knew Professor van Es and had continued to follow Harold’s  research,  development and testing in conjunction with the Cornell Cooperative Extension.  After months of travelling and talking with farmers and agronomists, Greg and Steve determined that there could be a viable business opportunity with Adapt-N; they ultimately decided to launch the company in November 2013.  By April 2014, supported by a small round of funding with farmers as the initial investors ,they  took what the original Cornell team had created and rebuilt it into a cloud-based solution.

[Greg Levow, President & COO, Agronomic Technology Group]:   “When we get into the commercial realm, scalability, user interface design, localization and multiple languages, units of measures etc. you end up needing lots of different skills sets… You can have CIS skills but can’t take it very far without the scientists and conversely without the CIS skills you can only take the science so far. .. That blend of the two is where the magic starts to happen.”

 [Steve Silbulkin, CEO Agronomic Technology Group]: “An entrepreneur must understand if there is a market opportunity. Is this a thing where you can be successful – can you define and confine the risks?  A faculty member doesn’t have the time to think about market opportunities and the time frame required to move through the business model process.”

[Greg Levow, President & COO, Agronomic Technology Group]: “It really takes being on the outside world to learn the skills which are required like understanding the customer.”

[Steve]” I launched my first business in 1999, it was a web-based business and the tools available at that time cost us a few hundred thousand dollars just to get started.  Today that same type of utility can be executed at a very small percentage of that cost.  If I were a young technologist, I would be very excited about the tools that are available to me. The utilities that are available to start to prototype and to show incremental value — it’s an incredible time to be working with data!  ….Agriculture has a large new influx of data – we are creating a voice for the soil.”

Adapt-N is the only nitrogen modeling tool on the market backed by published peer-reviewed land grant research, fully transparent strip trial results across multiple seasons, and with data proving that it can improve grower profit while reducing environmental losses.  It was awarded the Ag Professional New Product of the Year in 2012, and was recognized as the top-rated nitrogen management tool in Walmart’s sustainability initiative.

For more information about Adapt-N and Agronomics Technology visit:  www. Adapt-n.com

Pre-Incorporation: What to do???

I have talked with several student and alumni founders over the past few weeks about pre-incorporation issues.  I am writing this post to hopefully capture some of the key issues to consider.  The order here is not particularly important.  Please note that I am not addressing the juicy business issues like is there a market, do customers care, is there a good product/market fit, etc.  I am rather addressing the boring, but oh so critical few things that you best consider at time zero.

1.  Is your business idea legal?  Ok, this sounds pretty basic, but I have been hit with questions from more than one team that involve business ideas that are not legal.  I try very hard not to give a definite answer on this, but rather say “have you talked with a lawyer about this?”.  For example, if you want to sell craft beer on line in all 50 states via the internet, make sure that it is legal in all 50 states.  That can be a HUGE task when all 50 states are in question (as they all have different sets of laws and regulations).

2.  Is your business subject to regulation? Again, pretty basic, but not always obvious.  Regulatory issues require research and understanding.  Just look at all the issues Uber and Lyft are facing with taxi regulations.  Look at the issues facing marijuana growers in states where that is legal. You must know the regulatory framework, and then decide how to operate within it or how to change it.

3.  Is your product subject to FDA approval?  If yes, you better have someone on your team who understands the approval process (or have access to a good consultant who does).

4.  Do you have any clue how your business will make money?  Perhaps you do – GREAT.  Perhaps you are just building a user base and worrying about monetization later – NOT AS GREAT in my view.  Regardless, I hope you know what the revenue plan is.

5.  Who are your co-founders?  This is a tough one.  I talk with many students who need a co-founder with a certain skill set.  Tough to find a trustworthy co-founder.  That is the stark reality.  This requires a real search, and perhaps a soul search.

6.  What is the equity split?  This is critical to nail down as soon as you have a team of co-founders.  There is no magic formula for the split.  And I have already written about the importance of pre-incorporation agreements.  See that post here.  But i would like to share a simple pre-incorporation agreement.  I did not write this form, but it covers the key items: equity split, roles and vesting of shares.  I am a fan of pre-incorporation agreements as they level set all the founders and get them discussing the tough questions immediately.

Add more thoughts in the comments and I will edit the post to include them.  Thanks!

Ithaca Infographic

As I mentioned in my last post, Entrepreneurship at Cornell and Tompkins County Area Development recently hired Development Counsellors International (DCI) to promote Ithaca as an entrepreneurial hub.  The engagement is working out well.  As part of the work, DCI developed a cool Ithaca infographic that is worth sharing.  You can view it Ithaca Infographic.

Enjoy!

Shameless Promotion of Ithaca

Over a year ago I posted on how entrepreneurial the Ithaca Mayor, Svante Myrick, is.  Here is that older post from August 2013.

Today I spent the day with Mayor Myrick in NYC spreading the word on how awesome Ithaca is for startups.  Development Counsellors International (DCI) arranged the tour, and we hit 7 media outlets, including Crane’s, Fortune, BloombergTV, Fox, The Street and the New York Business Journal.  My Cornell office (Entrepreneurship at Cornell) and Tompkins County Area Development hired DCI to conduct a systematic PR campaign.

So, I am sticking to what I wrote in 2013:  our Mayor is an entrepreneurial guy and he gets the value of startup creation and how it clearly impacts the local economy.  It was great to have a day where we did most of our interviews together and each heard the other’s perspective.  We literally did no rehearsal, and yet there was complete agreement on all points made.  Nice win!

Here is one of the video clips from The Street.  I will post up other stories and/or video as they come out.

Cornell Alums Ranked #7

A just published PitchBook ranking puts Cornell #7 for number of founders that received VC funding from 2009 through the end of July 2014, based on the founders’ undergraduate programs.  See link here. Great result!!  And our eship ecosystem at Cornell and upstate NY as a whole continues to grow.

Go Cornell and go upstate NY!