Victorian incubator Rocket Seeder is changing how startups approach agtech

An alternate take on the term “AgTech”, along with a deep commitment to food and agriculture sustainability, is driving Melbourne-based early-stage incubator, Rocket Seeder, to look at the sector from a new perspective and extend its support to startups from unconventional segments of the supply chain.

For Emma Coath, one of the most important decisions she’s made as Managing Director of early-stage agriculture and food accelerator program, Rocket Seeder, has been the collective title she’s chosen to adopt for the field most-commonly referred to as AgTech.

“I think, traditionally, the definition of AgTech has been quite narrow and limited to on-farm and to digital innovation,” the 25-year food industry veteran said.

“But, I believe it’s end-to-end, from the farm right through to the consumer, and the innovation that comes under the term does not just have to be digital.

“To me, and to the way we run Rocket Seeder, it’s really important to know what your own definition is. We, along with a growing number of people in Australia and many overseas, use ‘agrifood tech’ as ​​opposed to ‘AgTech’, to capture technology and ideas from right across the supply chain.”

For many years, Emma worked in the export of food to Asia where ‘agrifood tech’ is commonly used, and this may well be a hint as to why the term has so strongly resonated.

Her preference for this nomenclature, however, has undoubtedly also been strengthened by Rocket Seeder’s commitment to offering lean startup coaching, access to experienced mentors, and purpose-driven assistance to a notably diverse group of alumni.

A quick scan of the Rocket Seeder website shows a medley of businesses that have participated in the accelerator’s three to six-month programs.

These include providers of superfoods, biopower, food wrapping, plant-based protein, eggs, vegetables, organics, liquid yeast, insect protein, energy recovery and digital farming platforms, educational services, livestock pricing, goat meat, bacon, wine, business coaching , alcoholic drinks, data analytics and an advertising and consumer insights platform – to name a sample.

“Even though we focus on early-stage startups, we are very broad in that this could mean anyone from a researcher in a university or a state government department right through to an individual who may not be an engineer or a scientist, but who is an inventor or innovator that has developed amazing technology,” Coath explained.

“They could be in the food industry or a farmer themselves, and that actually happens quite a lot, because we believe innovation can come from anywhere and support people regardless of their age or educational background.

“Our focus is working with those who have good ideas they want to commercialize and who are interested in exploring different business models to test viability and go to market.”

Established in 2017 by founding chair and well-known agrifood entrepreneur and investor, Matthew Pryor, Rocket Seeder has supported 76 early-stage food and agriculture startups over the past five years.

The accelerator has historically worked primarily in the Victorian market, however its growing prioritization of climate and sustainability, and of supporting businesses aligned with the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), is extending its relevance to important global conversations.

“The food and agriculture sector is a contributor to climate problems but, more and more, it is being seen as crucial to solving or reversing these issues, so it’s a really interesting time to be involved in this space and working with people who have good ideas and solutions they want to commercialize,” Coath said.

But it is by no means easy. The ever-present challenge of sourcing “smart” external funding remains the most talked-about barrier in the startup community, and one of the forces motivating Rocket Seeder to connect its cohorts with the AgriFutures growAG platform.

Coath and her team of staff, mentors and advisors, regularly stress to the fledging businesses within the accelerator, early-stage funding should come from investors who want to be part of their journey, and who are happy to help fill skills and knowledge gaps.

“We encourage our startups to do their due diligence and to find investors who really want to be part of the team,” she said.

“We’ve used growAG to support our members once they start raising because it is the perfect platform for them to do this. The nature of the global audience means you have thousands of relevant eyes looking at commercialization opportunities and it’s very targeted in terms of the ecosystem in which it operates.”

The Leaf Protein Co, part of Rocket Seeder’s 2020 cohort, combines tradition, science and technology to manufacturer plant proteins from leafy crop by-products. It is also one of three accelerator alumni which has utilized growAG to source investment.

The Leaf Protein Co founder Fern Ho

Co-founder and CEO, Fern Ho, said growAG had proven to be a critical part of The Leaf Protein Co’s growth and development as a business.

“growAG reached out to us when we were fundraising our current pre-seed round and we were able to put this information up on the platform,” she said.

“From there, we attracted loads of interested investors and people in the field, including scientists, to speak to us and help us on our journey, either through funding or expertise.

“This showed just how engaged the platform is with those communities, and how quickly it has gained recognition within the agrifood innovation space, and beyond.”

Off the back of this success, and with a firm view of how growAG may support cohorts in the future, Coath said she now saw the platform as the “go to” online destination for food and agriculture innovation.

“Everything is in one place, I think that is a huge benefit, and it’s not just focused on-farm but across the supply chain and across industries,” she said.

“The investors it is reaching come from a range of backgrounds and it can be corporates, venture capitalists, impact investors or angel investors who are looking at the site – and I can’t think of anything that has been like this in the past.

“I think growAG is helping to develop, grow and define the Australian agrifood sector.”

Other members of the Rocket Seeder cohort that have listed on the growAG website, include startups Whole and GoMicro.

* To list a research project, commercialization opportunity or organization at GrowAG here.

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