Universities at the forefront of agricultural innovation, startups

Universities are at the forefront of technological development in agriculture, encouraging creativity among students and faculty members.

The recent OnRamp Agricultural Conference – presented in part by the Nebraska Department of Economic Development; The Combine, a statewide initiative supporting high-growth entrepreneurs in the food and agriculture sectors; and gener8tor, a startup accelerator and turnkey platform to connect founders, investors, and businesses – presented a panel discussion from Midwestern universities on their own entrepreneurship and startup programs, some of their successes and challenges that slow things down.

Engler program

Tom Field, director of the Engler Agribusiness Entrepreneurship program at the University of Nebraska, said the UNL program was started because of a question asked by the parents of a recruit. The parent asked, “Are you going to turn my child into an employer or an employee? “

With financial backing from farm entrepreneur Paul Engler, a new program was founded to train people capable of building businesses that would contribute to large communities, Field said.

“The core of our entire program at UNL, which is generally focused on undergraduates, a few graduate students, and alumni in the work we do,” said Field, “we had to be truly determined to be motivated by a goal. “

He said: “Our whole model is to encourage our people to courageously pursue their goal through the art and practice of entrepreneurship.

Once this mode was established in the program, Field noted that it was amazing how many businesses – large, small, and medium, as well as nonprofits, individuals, and people in the financial industry – wanted to help. , because they like this notion of the motivated entrepreneur.

They also love that the program can train a whole new generation of employers who want to build communities through their work. “It’s our unique little approach,” said Field, “that we’ve merged into a traditional higher education model.”

The cohort is crucial

Kevin Kimle, Rastetter Chair of Agricultural Entrepreneurship at Iowa State University, runs a rural academy program that allows students to work on their entrepreneurial business opportunities over the summer months.

“The first step in working with undergraduates, which is a big part of what we do, is to approach entrepreneurship as a life skill, as a state of mind,” he said. declared. “Some of this may come from traditional courses and programs at a university, but several years ago we found out that a lot of students already have an internship or go back to the farm in the summer, but they would like to continue. to work. about their business.

ISU has launched the Rural Entrepreneurship Academy, which is a part-time program where students are put together in a cohort where they can work on their businesses.

“It’s really pretty basic,” Kimle explained. “We have the students work on a question or problem each week, and they talk to two other people to try and help them solve the challenge. Being part of a cohort, whether at the academy or on campus, is a great way to help young entrepreneurs keep growing.

Kimle said mentoring is at the heart of their college program. “Mentoring is at the heart of everything we do because it’s the people you meet who change your life,” he said.

At the University of Illinois, Kimberlee Kidwell, dean of the College of Agricultural, Consumer, and Environmental Sciences, said having a research park on campus has fostered a strong spirit of innovation for entrepreneurial students on campus.

“Students themselves can have hands-on learning partnerships with industry in our research park,” Kidwell said.

Speed ​​things up

The challenges for universities, agreed upon by the three panelists, may lie in the paperwork involved in start-ups, in licensing and patents, and in transporting some of the startups from faculty or students to commercialization. In addition, ensuring that faculty members participate in entrepreneurial innovation is crucial, Kidwell added.

“The pandemic crisis has made us move faster,” she said. “We have learned by doing that by moving forward, we can be nimble. We have learned that we can go faster over the past year and a half.

Kimle said the community aspect of a cohort of students is fun to watch. Building such an innovation community between agriculture professors, students and investors and private industry is the goal of each of the entrepreneurship programs at UNL, ISU, and Illinois, according to the panelists.

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