A collaboration between the Upstate New York (UNY) and Southwest I-Corps Nodes, and the American Farm Bureau Federation (AFBF) culminated in a unique “Ag-Corps” short course taught on-site at the 2020 AFBF Annual Convention and Trade Show in Austin, Texas. The course provided food and agriculture innovators with the opportunity to “get out of the lab” and conduct customer discovery with farmers and other convention attendees working in the food and agriculture space. Customer discovery, the methodology for determining product market fit, is crucial for startups that are in the process of creating or updating their business model.
Under the guidance of experienced entrepreneurs and instructors, Nate Cook (Lecturer, Cornell University Johnson College of Business and UNY I-Corps Node short course instructor) and Max Green (Principal, Ratio Flux, and SW I-Corps Node instructor), the six participating Ag-Corps teams spent three days (Jan. 17-19) learning about the customer discovery process, specifically how to identify their top customer segments, develop hypotheses about the value proposition they offer each segment, and interview potential customers about their needs.
“The only way you’ll ever find out if your innovation is viable is by talking to customers” said Cook to the Ag-Corps participants, “You could have the greatest product or service of all time, but if it’s too costly to get into the hands of customers, or it’s not a significant value add, then it’s irrelevant.”
The innovations of the Ag-Corps teams ranged from a platform that delivers local farm fresh produce to your doorstep to precision agriculture for specialty crop growers, such as wine producers. When not engaged in the short course programming, Ag-Corps participants conducted customer discovery interviews with AFBF vendors and attendees in the conference’s exhibition hall.
Murli Manohar, founder and CTO of Ascribe Bioscience, a startup developing biopesticides to tackle crop diseases, such as blight, gained valuable insight from the interviews he conducted with AFBF attendees. In his final presentation at the end of the short course, Manohar described how one farmer he interviewed stated that he hears “a lot about such technology, but in the end, they all fail,” demonstrating to Manohar the need for independent third-party verification of his product in order to build trust with his targeted customers.
“I found that farmers, the end-users of our technology, are heavily influenced by local associations, such as farm bureaus,” said Manohar, “I had the opportunity to speak with quite a few farm bureau representatives and it became clear that they play an important role in educating farmers about new technologies and even organizing field trials.”
Manohar, who has received an NSF SBIR Phase I grant, aims to participate in the NSF I-Corps National Teams program later this year in order to take his customer discovery efforts to other regions of the country. The seven-week innovation and entrepreneurship training course offers participants mentoring and up to $50,000 in NSF funding. During this time, teams complete over 100 in-person customer discovery interviews to collect first-hand evidence for or against product-market fit for their innovations.
In addition to interviewing AFBF attendees, several Ag-Corps teams, including Ithaca-based, Ag & Food Tech, LLC, visited the local farmer’s market and a local grocery store to talk to customers about the motivations behind their product choices. The startup is developing an ingredient platform to create healthier “creamy” food products, so the team spent time in the dairy-alternative and salad dressing aisles of the grocery store, speaking with customers to determine if their ingredient platform could be applied successfully to these types of food products.
“Our challenge was to identify which business opportunity would be the best to go after, using our technology. Having so many options to pursue impacted our ability to ask focused questions and test a single hypothesis; therefore, our early customer discovery conversations were wide ranging in nature but helped us identify a few key customer perspectives,” said founder and CEO, Amrit Singh.
While the feedback obtained from shoppers at the farmer’s market and grocery store was helpful, Ag & Food Tech plans to take its customer discovery to the next level.
“We plan to go upstream and target manufacturers of creamy products. We will validate what matters to manufacturers, commissaries, cafeterias and producers, particularly in the domain of cost benefits and sustainability,” said Singh.
Carl Chappell, founder and CEO of Off the Muck Market, an online platform that delivers produce to customers in Upstate New York, also gained insight from conducting customer discovery in the grocery aisles. Chappell was interested in the barriers preventing consumers from buying fruits and vegetables online. “What I discovered from talking to customers is that their greatest concerns with buying online is cost, wasteful packaging, and quality issues,” he said.
At the close of the Ag-Corps short course, participants presented their findings and received quality feedback from their peers and the instructors to assist them with adjusting their business models as needed and to determine the next steps in their entrepreneurial journeys.
“The feedback we’ve received from the participants and instructors of this first Ag-Corps short course has been overwhelmingly positive,” said Tom Schryver, Executive Director of the Center for Regional Economic Advancement at Cornell University, “Bringing innovators to events where they can get a lot of customer interaction in one place and at one time is clearly a win for them and for the program. We look forward to building upon this experience and expanding our conference-based short course programming in order to serve other industries that are important to the region.”
For more information on upcoming NSF UNY I-Corps Node short courses, please visit www. unyicorps.org/shortcourse.