Revving Up for Innovation

Steven Brockshus knew he had a good idea.

He was in Japan on an agriculture tour with his fellow National FFA officers during their international experience. Hosts from the U.S. Embassy explained that one million acres of productive farmland was out of production because current owners weren’t interested in cultivating the land.

That’s when “the wheels started turning,” Brockshus says.

Brockshus (’17 agricultural and life sciences education) created Terva, an online company serving as a marketplace that aggregates farmland real estate data and presents it to clients in a simple, map-based web interface.

He fleshed out his idea as a class project for Agricultural Entrepreneurship (Economics 334) and discovered his idea promised to strike the right chord every entrepreneur wants—commercial relevance.

Commercial relevance

Brockshus was granted the selective Murray Wise Associates Agriculture Entrepreneurship Award providing $10,000 of seed funding for his idea. He earned a proof of commercial relevance award from the Iowa Economic Development Authority and was close to qualifying for the award’s one-to-two matching grant. To help make his dream a reality, he needed $2,500 in additional capital.

That’s when he turned to his Economics 334 teacher Kevin Kimle (’91 MS economics), director of the Agricultural Entrepreneurship Initiative in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences.

“Rather than providing the incremental funding to make the match, I challenged Steven to go out and get it,” says Kimle. “He entered the TS Bank small business pitch competition event, REV in December.”

Brockshus earned $5,000 at REV for his Terva pitch and had the match he needed to secure $25,000 from the Iowa Economic Development Authority.

Iowa State grad Michael Guttau (’68 farm operations) is chairman of the board of TS Bank and his son Joshua (’99 animal science) is CEO. Their goal for REV is to ignite small businesses.

“Kevin and Dave Krog (the initiative’s entrepreneur-in-residence) helped prepare me for opportunities like REV, sharing their experiences and advice,” Brockshus says. “They encourage me to keep putting myself out there over and over again. If one door doesn’t open then I just keep working, and another opens.”

The doors are open at Terva, and Brockshus is hiring interns of his own. He’s building up to 5.5 full-time-equivalency positions this summer. Terva’s subscription service for landowners and agricultural realtors also is growing. They’ll soon expand their data offerings beyond Iowa to include Nebraska, Minnesota, Illinois and Indiana. It’s just one more step to his ultimate goal, Brockshus says.

“The big dream is to expand our offerings nationwide,” he says. “We’ll keep focusing on software to create new ways to work with data to alert buyers of land for sale, to share equitable sale prices and help both sides get better access to data about the land market.”

Start your engines

A new initiative in the Iowa State University Research Park was launched with the support of the Agricultural Entrepreneurship Initiative in 2016— the Ag Startup Engine. The aim is to rev up innovation in agriculture by identifying and funding innovative agricultural startup businesses that originate with college students’ ideas, like Terva, and others outside Iowa State.

“Because of our rich network of entrepreneurs and agribusiness leaders, the launch of this business startup program is a natural progression of our support to entrepreneurs,” says Kimle.

The private-sector entity provides agricultural entrepreneurs—including Iowa State students, faculty and staff and non-university entrepreneurs—a means of moving from an early business concept to an investment-ready business

“The Ag Startup Engine is a key piece of an emerging, vibrant ecosystem for agricultural entrepreneurs,” Kimle says.

Ag Startup Engine is governed by a small number of investors, which include Ag Ventures Alliance, Summit Agricultural Group, Ag Leader Technologies, Hertz Associates/Hertz Farm Management, Next Level Ventures, Renew Rural Iowa, Ag Ventures Alliance and Peoples Company.

It’s located in the Iowa State University Research Park and partners with a broader Iowa State initiative, the ISU Startup Factory.

The Ag Startup Engine provides a range of support to entrepreneurs:

  • mentoring
  • funding for product and business development
  • access to facilities and equipment
  • prototype development assistance and access to technical expertise
  • a structured pathway to obtain additional funding

“This program helps identify the next generation of innovators and leaders in agriculture and we are so pleased to be part of it,” says Al Myers, founder and president of Ames-based Ag Leader Technology, a technology innovator of precision agriculture hardware and software. “Entrepreneurs will shape the future of agriculture, and we look forward to supporting development of the technologies and businesses they create.”

Kevin Maher (’74 animal science), founder of GlobalVetLink, PetMeasure and Maher Technologies, has played a lead role in development of Ag Startup Engine.

“More than 15 years ago, I founded my first business in the ISU Research Park,” Maher says. “I am excited to help continue to build a startup environment at the ISU Research Park that makes it a destination for high-impact agricultural entrepreneurs.”

Jude Conway, executive director of Ag Ventures Alliance of Mason City, says, “Ag Startup Engine is a great fit for our organization and our business development for value-added agricultural ventures.”

Cloud-based tech, on-farm success

One of the first portfolio businesses for the Ag Startup Engine is Performance Livestock Analytics. The company established a presence in the Iowa State University Research Park in October 2016.

The business was founded in 2015 by Osage, Iowa, natives Dustin Balsley, a graduate from Luther College, and Dane Kuper (’08 ag studies). Performance Livestock Analytics strives to meet the growing demand for meat products through the application of data science to livestock farming.

The business is helping livestock producers become more sustainable and profitable through a precision agricultural application. By combining cloud-based technology with on-farm information, the company’s software helps livestock producers efficiently measure and manage activities and inventories.

One of the first portfolio businesses in the Ag Start Up Engine was co-founded by CALS grad Dane Kuper. Performance Livestock Analytics uses a precision agricultural application to help livestock producers efficiently measure and manage activities and inventories. (Christopher Gannon/ Iowa State University)

Balsley and Kuper established an Ames office to leverage the relationships through the Ag Startup Engine and to source talented interns to contribute to their team.

“Our presence will enable us to engage interns more effectively as well as attract full-time employees as our team grows,” says Balsley, the company’s chief operating officer.

“It’s a great opportunity for us to be a part of the Ag Startup Engine and ISU Startup Factory,” says Kuper, the chief executive officer. “It provides a platform for continued growth of our business and the support we need to scale up in the agricultural technology space.”

Balsley and Kuper’s business was named one of the semi-finalist teams in the American Farm Bureau’s 2017 Rural Entrepreneurship Challenge. The pair also was awarded the top prize of $25,000 in the 2016 Pappajohn Entrepreneurial Venture Competition and the $25,000 Proof of Commercial Relevance grant from the Iowa Economic Development Authority.

“The Ag Startup Engine aims to provide businesses like Performance Livestock Analytics with access to networks and resources helpful to their continued growth,” says Kimle. “Dane and Dustin have done a fantastic job of launching their products into the beef industry. We look forward to supporting them as their business grows its customer base.”

Next steps for ag entrepreneurs

The Agricultural Entrepreneurship Initiative was established in 2005 in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences to broaden understanding of entrepreneurship among faculty and students in the college. The initiative provides educational experiences to develop students’ entrepreneurial skills and increase interaction among students, faculty and agricultural entrepreneurs.

The American Farm Bureau Federation’s Rural Entrepreneurship Challenge is a national business competition focused exclusively on rural entrepreneurs working on food and agriculture businesses.

The first two of these competitions were won by Agriculture Entrepreneurship Initiative alumni: Michael Koenig (’13 agricultural and life sciences education), Holden Nyhus (’13 agricultural and life sciences education) and Stuart McCulloh (’13 agricultural and life sciences education) of Scout Pro in 2015; and Ryan Augustine (’12 agricultural studies) of AccuGrain in 2016.

In 2017, two semi-finalists for the honor also had ties to the initiative, Performance Livestock Analytics and Inland Sea.

To build on this record of success the initiative plans to expand offerings to engage students in developing entrepreneurial skills and businesses.

“I think we’re still trying to catch up to students in terms of their desire for classes and experiences that help them think, behave and exercise the skills of an entrepreneur,” says Kimle. “Entrepreneurship is a life skill that is important if starting a business, but those same skills can be applied to making an impact in non-business ways too.”

New courses, experiential learning opportunities and engagement opportunities will be rolled out by the initiative in the next few years.

“The goal is to build students’ entrepreneurial capacity,” says Karen Kerns, CEO of Kerns and Associates and chair of the Agricultural Entrepreneurship Initiative’s Advisory Council. “Entrepreneurship is more than one idea, product or project. It’s a way of thinking, innovating and impacting.”