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Sacramento region should lead the world in ag-tech innovation

Lexington Herald-Leader

While shaping itself into the farm-to-fork capital, Sacramento also has the potential to be the nation’s hub of innovation for food and agriculture technology.

The region has one of the highest-ranked food and ag research universities in the world, connected to one of the world’s top ag economies and in a state with the nation’s largest share of investment in food and ag startup companies. Yet with a recent leap in ag-tech investment elsewhere, this could be Sacramento’s opportunity to lose if we don’t seize the momentum.

In 2015, food and ag-tech startups raised $2.9 billion in private investment, an impressive $1 billion in growth over 2014. The U.S. accounted for more than half of those deals, with California supplying 31 percent. Though still a significant share, it’s a slip from 2014, when California was home to nearly half the deals.

While the tide of venture capital investment still flows through Silicon Valley, the rise of incubator and accelerator initiatives in the Midwest and on the East Coast are catching up with Northern California.

Innovation is becoming critical to keeping California’s food and agricultural industries competitive. While the state is in its fifth year of drought, it is also adjusting to meet new regulations on groundwater use and new targets for reducing greenhouse gas emissions in our food systems. This means more food will need to come from fewer resources: less water, fewer chemicals and less labor-intensive practices to grow and harvest our food.

To tackle these challenges, a triangle of innovation should be connecting our region to Silicon Valley and the Central Valley, further aligning California’s commitment to environmental sustainability with its success in delivering high-quality food.

As a sign of the payoff from past technology investments, California today produces 85 percent more food with 15 percent less water than it did 50 years ago. Tomorrow’s farm promises even more water efficiency by connecting irrigation and fertilization systems to wireless networks and the internet of things, to enable a new level of precision and conservation in how we produce food.

In the world of food and agricultural science, the University of California, Davis, is well recognized as a global leader. This helps the campus draw national and international assets to the Sacramento region and its economy, which is how the World Food Center – now approaching its third year at UC Davis – is building bridges to some of the most innovative food and ag-tech investors, incubators and accelerator programs. These connections are feeding our regional startups and seeding economic growth. But more is needed.

Mayor Kevin Johnson’s new Innovation and Growth Fund is a welcome start for attracting young entrepreneurs. To realize our goal of being the tech hub for food and ag, we need to continue to draw those investors and entrepreneurs from Silicon Valley and across the nation. This starts with strong regional partners, both public and private.

To launch more companies, we need expanded angel and seed funding, incubator spaces that meet a range of technology needs and mentoring networks that guide entrepreneurs from concepts to products to market channels.

A strong local foundation bolsters startups for drawing investment from Silicon Valley and from top strategic and venture investment groups nationally. Only a few startups make it to all the way to an initial public offering or acquisition. But the numbers add up in terms of economic growth and visibility to investors and entrepreneurs outside our region.

Seizing this moment, our region can take the lead in shaping innovative technology solutions to feed the planet in healthy and sustainable ways.

Josette Lewis is associated director of the World Food Center at UC Davis. Contact her at jolewis@ucdavis.edu.

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