U.S.: Western Growers CEO gives lowdown on new innovation center
The head of Western Growers has described the soon-to-be-opened agricultural technology center as an 'interesting new venture' for the association, and says a future expansion or new site openings could be on the cards.
The Western Growers Center for Innovation and Technology is due to open in Salinas next month, with the aim of helping the produce industry feed more people with fewer resources.
To collaborate on the project, the Irvine-based association formed a strategic alliance with investment and advisory firm Silicon Valley Global Partners (SVG), which plays co-host with Forbes to an agricultural technology summit held annually in the city.
"SVG felt that it would be important to have an incubator there to work with the young innovators and help them make contacts with the farming community to ensure that their technology was in fact commercially viable," Western Growers president and CEO Tom Nassif told www.freshfruitportal.com.
"We're looking to find technology that will help us to utilize limited resources, like water, in a more efficient and more environmentally friendly manner. Encapsulated, we'd say we're trying to do more with less."
The center, which is funded entirely by Western Growers, will have capacity for up to around 35 innovators and be equipped with the computing technology necessary for them to develop their ideas.
Nassif explained there would be certain times when the 'incubator' innovators would come and display their technology to a group of potential investors, after which they may get recommended for SVG's Thrive Accelerator program - the next step toward receiving funding.
"Through that Accelerator, the number of potential technology companies that could be funded will be winnowed down to a smaller group," he said.
Then through a separate fund called the SVG Technology Growth Fund - in which Western Growers is a limited partner and SVG is a General Partner (GP) - investors would decide which technologies they want to support financially and at what level.
Western Growers members who are investing in the fund will also have an opportunity to vote on the technology they want to support.
The association is interested in anybody that has technology relevant to the agricultural industry, and no single commodity will be given special focus.
"We want to give all of our members the opportunity to benefit from new technology," Nassif said.
The CEO also mentioned there would be different types of tenants in the center, such as those who just want to come and have a place to sit down and utilize the computers, and those who come for a meeting with a particular investor. The association is aiming to provide office space at an affordable rate.
The Center will be housed on the bottom floor of the new Taylor Farms headquarters building, and will have an open floor layout designed to encourage interaction and the sharing of ideas.
In addition, incubators and Accelerators will collaboratively be run with SVG's own innovation center based in San Jose, depending upon where the innovators and investors are interested in being.
Nassif said SVG would also assist Western Growers in some of the programming and both would support the innovators by giving them practical information on aspects such as how to form a company, what legal form to take, and what their insurance and legal liabilities should be.
"[They will be shown] good business sense kinds of things that maybe they haven’t been through before because it’s a small startup company," he said.
Asked what direction the Center may take in the future, Nassif said it would be a learning curve for the association to establish the best course of action given a project of this kind hasn't previously been undertaken.
"This is an interesting new venture for Western Growers, this is not something we’ve done before," he said.
"So we're going to learn by experience as to the best uses of the Center, the best kinds of programming we can bring to the Center, what kinds of companies should be there, also whether we should open new Centers in other areas of California, Arizona or Colorado where they can be near the agriculture community, or whether we should expand the one we have in Salinas."
Photos: Courtesy of Western Growers