Ag Tech Start-Ups Planting Roots in Salinas

Jul 14, 2016

The Forbes AgTech Summit is underway in Oldtown Salinas.  The annual event brings together tech entrepreneurs, farmers and investors from around the world.  It started Wednesday with tours of local processing plants, field demonstrations of cutting edge technologies and opening remarks from Lieutenant Governor Gavin Newsom.

“It’s an interesting truth about California. Outside of Hollywood there’s no two more iconic industries than Silicon Valley and the agriculture industry.  And it seems self-evident to everybody hear that we have a unique opportunity to collaborate,” said Newsom.

Ag-tech start-ups are already planting roots just steps from where this summit is taking place.   The Western Growers Center for Innovation and Technology is a hub for agriculture technology start-up companies is located on the ground floor of the new Taylor Farms building in Oldtown Salinas.

“This is a co-working space, so it’s really designed to be flexible.  But also be comfortable and be young and hip,” says manager Lisa Dobbins.  “It’s definitely cas(ual), but it’s also kind of a higher end look to it with the hope that people feel really comfortable, and want to just spread out and get some work done.”

At the WGCIT, start-ups can have a dedicated desk for $500 a month, or for $250 a month, they can have a hot desk.  That’s where they can drop in and use the office space as needed. The center also offers workshops and networking events.

“It’s flex.  People come and go.    We have about three that are here every day,” says Dobbins.

During the 2015 Forbes Ag Tech Summit, the Western Growers announced plans to open this center.   The Association represents ag companies growing fresh produce in Arizona, California and Colorado. 

Back then, Western Growers CEO Tom Nassif said the center will nurture technology that will help its members feed the world using fewer natural resources.

“Where they can sit down in a  conference room and be mentored by farmers.  Who can say you’ve got a great technology; however, it needs to be be modified for it to be useful and for your venture to be commercially viable,” said Nassif.

So last December this center opened with about six start-ups signed up to use the space.  Now 20 ag-tech companies work here.  Their areas of innovation vary from food safety to soil nutrients and bringing the sharing economy to the farm.

“Think of AirBnB, but for ag and ag assets,” says Carson Britz, COO of HarvestPort.  It’s an online marketplace where farmers can share equipment like trucks, produce bins and irrigation pipes. 

“So one part of the year you only need an asset for a certain specific period of time.  Then you can actually monetize and rent that out to growers who maybe in another region can use that asset instead of having it sit idle and literally collect dust in your yard,” says Britz.

HarvestPort has about six employees who are scattered throughout the west.   The start-up rents a hot desk.  Britz drops in every other week. 

“It definitely benefits us to strategically be here from a geography stand point for client acquisition and client relationships, but also just for the increased activity surrounding ag tech really as a result of the Center for Innovation and Technology,” says Britz.

With 20 spots taken, the Center has space for 15 more start-ups.