The Iowa AgriTech accelerator is following the ranks of other programs and going virtual for its upcoming cohort, according to an email sent to The Spoon. The program has also extended its application deadline to May 1 at 11:59 p.m. Central Time.
Like other food-focused accelerator programs, social distancing has presented Iowa AgriTech with the challenge of delivering a collaborative, immersive experience to its participants while still keeping everyone safe.
“First and foremost, we wanted to ensure the health and wellbeing of everyone involved, but we also knew how important it would be to continue to provide the support and mentorship that is so vital to the startups, especially at a time like this,” the program’s Executive Director Nadilia Gomez told me over the phone today.
Under normal circumstances (i.e., not during a pandemic), the Des Moines, Iowa-based program runs for a little over three months, offering startups mentorship and networking opportunities as well as office space in Des Moines. Participants also get $40,000 in seed funding (for 6 percent equity). While the cash investment and the networking opportunities remain in place, this year’s cohort will operate 100 percent virtually, with all programming and curriculum taking place online.
Gomez said that program organizers are very open in terms of which specific tools they will use to deliver a high-quality experience to participants. “I would say that we will try to bring in as many elements as are necessary to ensure the quality of the mentor interaction. That could be the same virtual tool but it could be utilized in different ways,” she said. She added that virtual breakout rooms and whiteboard activities as well as enhanced chat functions are among the options on the table. Since the program hasn’t actually started yet, it remains to be seen which programs wind up being the best options for this cohort.
She added that “More important than the tools is the design of the format so that we have the best interaction.”
Six startups will be selected to participate in the program. While agtech is the main focus of the accelerator, the range of what individual companies do is fairly wide. Gomez said that Iowa AgriTech considers everything from startups working on data transparency to companies creating solutions around automation, sensors, predictive analytics, livestock, greenhouses, and much more.
Past participants include Rabbit Tractors, maker of autonomous tractors, Phenomics Labs, whose platform does predictive phenotyping, and Birdpreneur, who helps small-scale poultry farmers in Africa scale up their business.
“We historically try to pick a combination of startups that have a strong impact on the farming community,” said Gomez. “But we are not specifically looking for a sub-sector within agriculture.”
How much social distancing changes the program permanently is another to-be-determined factor. Startup accelerators in general are now having to pivot to remote programming, decide whether or not to host things like demo days, and in general operate with some level of uncertainty about the design of future programs. Other programs, including Food-X and BSH, have successfully introduced virtual elements into their programming, which is a good sign for those like Iowa AgriTech, who are just starting out on this digital journey.
At the same time, Gomez made clear that, at least now, being able to bring startups to Des Moines in the future is “the preferred practice for the accelerator.” She cited Iowa’s unique place in the agricultural sector as a big reason in-person programming remains attractive once we’re past the pandemic. However, she added that she could “definitely” see Iowa Agritech using more virtual elements as add-ons to the regular programming for future cohorts.
The next Iowa AgriTech cohort will run from July 8 – October 16.