For CEOs of start-ups, spreading the word on a new idea or technology is a bit like being a missionary. In order to get people to believe in what you’re doing, you need to be a super-believer yourself, preparing your presentation to perfection, anticipating any questions or objections in advance, and anticipating opportunities waiting to be seized before they slip away.
That’s a difficult enough challenge for Israeli startups that are trying to build a name for themselves in an area where Israel’s technology presence is already a known entity, like the mobile industry. But for startups working in areas in which Israel’s tech accomplishments are not as well-known — like the agritech industry — the challenge is far greater.
In fact, said Steve Rhodes, CEO of the Trendlines Group, you have to have the mindset of a “missionary” in order to spread the word — both about Israeli agritech startups, and about Israel’s plethora of agricultural technology. “Israel has over 200 research groups developing great agricultural technology, but somehow we haven’t been as successful commercializing and marketing it as we have in other tech areas. But Israel has a great deal to offer farmers and the agriculture industry.”
Telling the world — or more specifically, investors and potential partners — about Israel’s agritech accomplishments was the reason Rhodes, along with Nitza Kardish, CEO of Trendline’s Mofet Venture Accelerator, took the CEOs of five Israeli agritech startups on a recent five-day “roadshow,” presenting the companies and their technologies to hundreds of investors in five cities across the US. Among the cities were places Israeli entrepreneurs rarely, if ever, go seeking capital or partnerships, such as Detroit, Denver, St. Louis, and Memphis. And while entrepreneurs who are looking for funding for mobile or IT security companies would probably be better off seeking it in New York, Palo Alto, or Boston, any company in the agritech business had better put these towns — nexuses where technology and agriculture meet — on their agenda.
Israel has indeed produced some important agritech: Cherry tomatoes were first cultivated at Hebrew University; Israel’s Netafim invented drip irrigation, without which modern farming would be impossible in much of the world; and Israeli cows are the most prolific producers of milk in the world, with the average dairy cow in Israel producing 12,240 kg of milk annually (the runners-up are American cows, which produce 9,164.4 kg of milk annually).
These are just three of the many examples of Israeli agritech accomplishments, said Rhodes — but unlike areas like mobile, web technology, chip technology, and the plethora of other tech areas where Israel is a “star,” the country’s agritech contributions aren’t as familiar.
“There really hasn’t been an advocate… until now,” said Rhodes. “We at Trendlines believe that agritech could be the next big tech development to come out of Israel. As the world gets more crowded, the world is going to need more food than ever. In a few decades it is predicted that there will be some 9 billion people in the world. Without technology to improve yields, fight pests, and expand the amount of land available for crops, there is no way we will be able to feed all those people. Israeli technology can go a long way to helping accomplish these goals.”
And so they hit the road, Trendlines and its five startups: SolChip (solar energy to power sensors that keep track of livestock), MiRobot (developing cheaper robots to milk cows), EdenShield (natural herbs to more effectively prevent insect infestation of plants), Catalyst Agtech (producing compounds to remove pesticides from soil), and Organis Solutions (distilling plant odors to create insect-repelling packaging). Investors had an opportunity to hear the CEOs discuss their technologies and market strategies, ask them questions, and network with them.
For many of the investors and agriculture industry officials, the news that Israel was a “Startup Agritech Nation” was a surprise. Among those in the St. Louis audience, for example, was Dave Russell, Director of Technology Prospecting for Monsanto, perhaps the world’s biggest agritech firm. Monsanto has, in recent years, acquired two Israeli startups (Rosetta Green and Beelogics), but those deals came about as a result of word of mouth. But the company has become more aware recently of the large amount of agritech research going on in Israel.
“We do searches of large academic databases to see what is being published on agricultural technology, and we see that Israel is one of the top producers of agritech studies and research. Relative to population, there is an enormous amount of agritech research going on.” That’s the kind of thing that gets attention in his company, Russell said, and Monsanto is going to be looking a lot more closely at Israeli agritech startups as a result.
Attending the roadshow event that took place in New York was Rurik Halaby, the CEO of New York-based AgriCapital, one of the largest mergers and acquisition firms working in the agritech space — only made recently aware of Israel’s agritech accomplishments. “Gram for gram, Israel is as productive as any nation, and considering the limitations it must work within,” said Halaby, “it is impressive and amazing.”
It’s a story he wants the world to know, as well. “I admire Trendlines for what they are doing. It truly takes a ‘missionary’ to tell this story, and I am happy they are doing it.”