November 8, 2018
We celebrate the agricultural entrepreneurs of North Iowa. Iowa has a long history of innovators, inventors, and entrepreneurs who have changed the world with their technologies, products, services, and businesses. In honor of Agricultural Entrepreneurship Week, today we spotlight Ag Ventures Alliance, a key player in North Iowa’s agricultural entrepreneurship ecosystem.
Ag Ventures Alliance is a business development organization for agriculture based businesses, operating as a venture capital firm. The members of Ag Ventures Alliance are farmers and agriculture-related individuals who are taking control of their economic future by participating in value-added agriculture businesses and helping new agricultural entrepreneurs and start-ups succeed. We asked Spencer Stensrude, Business Analyst at Ag Ventures Alliance, to share one of his favorite recent success stories:
There is no better time than Ag Entrepreneurship Week to revisit one of our favorite success stories. Smart Ag is a company developing aftermarket autonomous solutions for tractors based in Ames, IA that was founded by a Colin Hurd, a recent graduate of Iowa State University. Colin successfully exited a previous business centered on an invention to remove compaction behind planter tracks. While developing his first business he learned that labor scarcity was the biggest problem most of his customers were facing. This was the foundation Smart Ag is built upon.
Colin started back in 2016 after seeing that a farmer had adapted autonomous drone software to control a tractor. He already had a working prototype developed when he first reached out to Ag Ventures Alliance. The Ag Ventures Alliance team was extremely impressed with the progress Colin was able to make in such a short amount of time, and his experience starting and exiting a previous company in the ag industry. After several discussions and becoming completely convinced that Colin had a thorough understanding of his customers and the challenges they were facing, we decided to make an investment early in the Smart Ag seed round.
Throughout 2017 Colin built a highly capable team that was able to get their minimum viable product into the hands of a few pilot customers. Smart Ag started to attract a lot of attention during this time as well. The company held a field day outside of Ames and demonstrated the AutoCart system working with a combine and the safety features and obstacle detection and avoidance features that were built it. I have to admit that seeing a tractor drive itself is an amazing sight. I have seen the system operating several times and I still get pulled into every video of the AutoCart system that is posted online.
After reaching the important pilot customer milestone and getting a clear product roadmap for what is important to future customers the company secured a lead investor for a Series A equity investment round. The lead investor was Stine Seed and the Series A round provided over $5,000,000 for Smart Ag to hire additional team members to continue building and supporting their breakthrough driverless technology.
As we finish up the year Smart Ag is adding progressive dealers to their network, continuing to build a lot of support from farmers across the country, and launching a limited roll out of the product.
I like to take credit for being one of the large early investors in the seed round which may have helped secure the rest of the funding to develop the minimum viable product, but I realized along the way that everyone likes to take credit for the success stories, and really it was the team that understood their customer’s pain and built a solution that deserves the credit. Smart Ag still has a long way to go before we see a driverless tractor on every farm, but they have also come a long way from the time when it was open source drone software adapted to a John Deere tractor.