AgTech Investment Horizons: In Conversation with Rob Leclerc, CEO, AgFunder

Rob is the cofounder of AgFunder, an online venture capital platform investing in agtech and foodtech. Rob is a Forbes contributor and has also been published in TechCrunch, Harvard Business Review, Financial Post, and twice in Nature journals. He has five degrees, spanning Philosophy, Computer Science, and Computational Biology, including a PhD from Yale University. 

THRIVE: Tell us about AgFunder, where it started and where it is today?
RL:
 My background is in AI, computation, robotics, and quantitative finance and in 2009, I asked the question, what is an interesting industry which intersects these areas? AgTech is where I saw the confluence of these new technologies. Agriculture technology does not have a traditional investment model, and it certainly did not back then.

Silicon Valley is really special in that it has capital, investment, customers, institutions all in one place, but it is very difficult to apply Silicon Valley to agriculture. Back when we started, venture capital was used to SaaS, consumer, mobile and marketplaces, but when you started to talk about agriculture, you’d lose VCs and so the basis for AgFunder was to reimagine venture for an agriculture technology company. The concept and the industry was really nascent at the time, so we got shut out of mainstream media. AgFunderNews was borne of the idea that we were not only going to need raise awareness, but also become the center of gravity via an information platform that would catalyze agtech. So in between research and building an ecosystem, AgFunderNews filled a void: information.

We have recently closed our first investment fund, and will invest in 10-12 companies at the start. The idea here is to become a regular investment platform, and to socialize our deal flow and make it available for co-investment under a special purpose vehicle that we manage. Importantly, 50 percent of AgFunder today is engineers behind the scenes developing sophisticated algorithms to identify opportunities, recommend co-investors, and systemically create scale and networks with agtech companies. With over 45,000 subscribers, we want AgFunder to present technology and deal flow in a way that is personalized for our ecosystem, and vice versa.

THRIVE: What is different about agtech compared to other mobile, fintech and other investment categories in Silicon Valley?

RL: Silicon Valley likes really big markets and fast-moving technology, and Climate Corp was a great catalyst. At the beginning, it was a chicken and egg problem, because investors weren’t seeing caliber of entrepreneurship and entrepreneurs weren’t seeing capital. Today, we see really great companies and solid capital platforms available, inside and outside of conventional venture.

AgFunder is looking for great returns and we see that Seed and Series A is where most of the value is today. That said, we are looking at longer timelines with longer burn in, we have to know that the technology is defensible, know the market, work the kinks out, and stay in- because the industry is hostile to rapid, disruptive technology. Depending on the sector, companies will encounter regulatory headwinds- as in the case of biotech- or tailwinds- as with irrigation management companies.

Growth is not going to hit traditional VC metrics, and so the traditional venture model will need to adapt.

Across the ecosystem, you see good conferences, media and research, critical mass, sharing of best practices, more data and the people telling those stories. So despite that agriculture is an industry that is historically big, global, and fragmented, the collaboration happening today will continue to play a really important role.

Trimble Becomes Latest Partner to Join THRIVE AgTech Venture & Innovation Platform

PALO ALTO, Calif., Feb. 12, 2018SVG Partners announced today that Trimble (NASDAQ: TRMB) has become the latest corporate partner to join the THRIVE AgTech Venture & Innovation Platform. Trimble’s broad range of GPS, variable rate implement controls, wireless communications and analytics software is increasingly delivering new capabilities for agriculture. The new relationship between Trimble and SVG’s THRIVE platform signifies the continued commitment to advancing a safer and more sustainable agriculture supply chain and to providing innovative solutions to farmers and their production partners worldwide.

 

“THRIVE is identifying startups that are bringing new and different technology to agriculture,” said Darryl Matthews, Trimble senior vice president. “Our aim is to advance technology by ensuring that new products have a path to the farmer and by leveraging our global distribution network of dealers who can provide a real-time feedback loop on these new technologies.”

 

With integrated solutions from Trimble agriculture businesses such as AgriTrend and HarvestMark, Trimble is driving new capabilities to enable farmers, agronomists, processers, equipment manufacturers and ag retailers to collect, share and manage information across the agricultural value chain in order to gain efficiencies on the farm. “Enabling farmers to integrate information is key for their operations since they are often confronted with disparate hardware and software products,” said Matthews. “If we can facilitate the timely exchange of information between the farmer and a startup, we can to act as a conduit to help these startups create better products that simplify the farmer’s experience.”

 

The SVG-THRIVE AgTech platform aims to create an interface between promising startups and corporate partners like Trimble to test product fit within the ecosystem of farms and determine which technologies deliver a return on investment. “We are delighted to welcome Trimble to our THRIVE Venture & Innovation Platform,” said SVG Partners and THRIVE founder John Hartnett.

 

“Trimble has been a leader in precision agriculture for more than 20 years. We have a deep understanding of the market and we look forward to further advancing innovation and technology by collaborating with external partners such as THRIVE,” said Matthews.

 

ABOUT TRIMBLE’S AGRICULTURE DIVISION

Trimble’s Agriculture Division provides solutions that solve complex technology challenges across the entire agricultural landscape. The solutions enable farmers and advisors to allocate scarce resources to produce a safe, reliable food supply in a profitable and environmentally sustainable manner. Covering all seasons, crops, terrains and farm sizes, Trimble solutions can be used on most equipment on the farm, regardless of manufacturer and production year. The acquisition of Müller-Elektronik, a German company specializing in implement control and precision farming solutions, extends Trimble’s precision agriculture capabilities from the vehicle to the implement. To enable better decision making, Trimble offers technology integration that allows farmers to collect, share, and manage information across their farm, while providing improved operating efficiencies in the agricultural value chain. Trimble solutions include guidance and steering, agronomy coaching, desktop and cloud-based data management, flow and application control, water management, harvest solutions and correction services. For more information on Trimble Agriculture, visit: www.trimble.com/agriculture.

 

ABOUT TRIMBLE

Trimble is transforming the way the world works by delivering products and services that connect the physical and digital worlds. Core technologies in positioning, modeling, connectivity and data analytics enable customers to improve productivity, quality, safety and sustainability. From purpose-built products to enterprise lifecycle solutions, Trimble software, hardware and services are transforming a broad range of industries such as agriculture, construction, geospatial and transportation and logistics. For more information about Trimble, visit:  www.trimble.com.

 

ABOUT THE SVG PARTNERS-THRIVE VENTURE & INNOVATION PLATFORM

The THRIVE Venture & Innovation Platform works with leading corporations, startups, universities, and growers to solve the biggest challenges facing the food and agriculture industries. Yearly, THRIVE hosts a highly selective program for seed and growth stage AgTech and FoodTech startups, providing investment, top-tier mentorship, trials, and go to market support. The THRIVE Program was launched in 2014 by Silicon Valley Global Partners (SVG Partners), a venture, innovation and advisory firm based in Silicon Valley, CA. www.svgpartners.com