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St. Louis accelerator invests in high-potential agtech startups

By the time I was 27, my wife and I were the parents of three children, including a 9-year-old. That isn’t bragging—it’s more a testament to our poor family-planning skills. For many of those years, I worked for nonprofits or the state government, and my wife was a stay-at-home parent. That meant we didn’t have a whole lot of money, and our food budget had to stretch pretty far.

Actually, it had to stretch really far.

It had to stretch so far that after years of eating stir-fry made from tofu, one night during dinner our oldest daughter abruptly put down her fork and proclaimed, “I have had enough of this toe food!” Not only could we not afford $12.99 Whole Foods organic free range rotisserie chickens, but we depended on the $4.99 chickens from Costco—the kind that are roughly the size of a small dog and would be given a steroid test before they signed with a professional baseball team.

In other words, I’ve always been very sympathetic toward the argument that we need more science and innovation in agriculture if we want cheaper, more sustainable food sources.

That emphasis on increased production and sustainability is also behind The Yield Lab, a St. Louis-based accelerator focused on finding, funding, and mentoring high-potential agtech startups. Founded in 2014 by former Novus International President and CEO Thad Simons and his three partners, the Yield Lab grew out of a St. Louis venture capital firm, Cultivation Capital. The need for ag-focused funding was immediately apparent, and three years after its founding the Yield Lab has grown to 19 portfolio companies.

The Yield Lab’s influence goes far beyond just St. Louis. The accelerator recently opened a second office in Dublin, Ireland, and received 115 applications from 15 countries during their first six weeks. Applicants aren’t just attracted to the $100,000 in funding. The Yield Lab’s partners, investors, and other stakeholders have deep connections within agriculture, and access to that network is one of the primary benefits for companies in the portfolio.

One of those companies is S4, an agricultural analytics firm that helps producers and farmers manage risk. Part of The Yield Lab’s first wave of investments, the partnership with S4 has been a good thing for everyone involved, including the St. Louis region. Though the Yield Lab does not require funded companies to relocate, S4 co-founder and CFO Tomas Pena made St. Louis the company’s U.S. headquarters and lived in the city for nearly two years. S4 and Pena’s presence in the city has created relationships between policymakers, investors, and entrepreneurs in St. Louis and Argentina.

Making St. Louis and the Silicon Prairie the global base for agtech makes sense. According to Thad Simons, the Yield Lab’s CEO, St. Louis has more plant science PhDs per capita than anywhere else in the world. Three of the top ten farming states are also located on the Silicon Prairie (Nebraska, Kansas, and Iowa).

But making the Midwest the hub of both food producers and agtech entrepreneurs is about more than just economic power. Currently agtech companies have to seek funding primarily from investors who often don’t understand agriculture, its thinner margins, and its importance to the domestic and (especially) global economy. Having a source of capital that funds innovation in the region’s largest industry creates political and financial strength for Middle America in a national economy dominated by the two coasts.

That’s great news for startups looking to get funding from investors who understand agriculture.

It’s also great news for a planet that faces a major food shortage in the coming decades. Though there has been a significant reduction in global hunger over the last twenty-five years, agricultural productivity has peaked, and that coupled with a coming population boom in developing nations will test our ability to make sure humans have access to enough nutritious food.

Fortunately, there is an accelerator in St. Louis looking to fund entrepreneurs and startups that are trying to solve that problem—and in the meantime, increase the economic clout of the Midwest and the Silicon Prairie.

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Dustin McKissen is a consultant based in St. Charles, Missouri. He’s a two-time LinkedIn Top Voice and a columnist for Inc. and CNBC.