The facts speak for themselves: agriculture uses 70 percent of global water and 14 percent of global energy. As a program dedicated to clean technology and the entrepreneurs that bring it to market, Wells Fargo’s Innovation Incubator (IN2) program, managed by the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL), decided that those numbers could not be ignored. The program recognized that it had a mission to fulfill in agriculture, and in October 2018 IN2 announced its expansion into agricultural technology (agtech). First assignment: determine where in agtech it could make the greatest impact. Now, it has released the findings of that analysis in a white paper titled, “IN2 Food, Energy, Water Landscape.”
The white paper was authored by IN2 and CleanTech Group. The authors started with the premise that the areas of best focus existed under three main themes: 1) water conservation, 2) food system inefficiencies, and 3) ag production digitization.
“These are the agricultural areas that consume the most energy and water and emit the most greenhouse gases,” said Leo Zhang, a lead author. “This is where the Wells Fargo IN2 program can have the most impact.”
Within those broader areas, the authors considered technology value chains, key environmental trends and challenges, existing investments, and high impact challenges that are not being met. Each technology value chain was researched and charted based on the total amount of existing investment, deal volume, and the impact potential in the areas of energy reduction, greenhouse gas reduction, and water conservation.
The analysis concluded that the current water system in the United States would realize the most benefit from conservation efforts rather than efforts to increase supply. The most promising water conservation technologies for start-up cleantech companies to pursue with IN2– sensors/water use analytics and nutrient recovery.
Several processes are involved in moving food from the producer to the consumer. The authors analyzed the system from the time the food leaves the processing plant to its end-of-life as waste or recycled goods, including packaging. The findings: logistics software focused on traceability (identifying certified environmentally friendly ag products), cold chain (refrigerated) transportation, and packaging hold the most cleantech impact potential.
Ag Production Digitization
In the 21st century, data, analytics, and automation rule many industries; agriculture is no different. Technologies that leverage data sets, advanced analytical models, and automation to enable more sustainable and profitable ag production are considered the best contenders for IN2 consideration. Specifically, simulation and modelling technologies are needed to provide actionable information to farmers. Technologies that convert sensor data to farm management and robotics and machinery that provide crop information are key.
Some of the results surprised the authors. “We recognized need in the food, energy, and water space, but didn’t realize the extent of the challenge around implementing new technologies – the logistics and the costs,” said Zhang. “It illustrates the need for the Wells Fargo IN2 program and its ability to move technologies through roadblocks and into the market.”
The data gathered and conclusions reached by the report authors will inform the direction of future IN2 cohorts focused on agriculture. The IN2 channel partners who have expertise in agtech will make referrals based on the criteria set by the program. The Donald Danforth Plant Science Center, the world’s largest independent plant science institute, will provide technical expertise to the agtech start-up companies selected to participate for the first cohort to be selected this spring.
“The white paper provides us with a compass for the future,” said NREL’s IN2 program manager, Trish Cozart. “We wanted a solid foundation of data to stand beside what we learn from incubating our first ag cohort. Both activities will inform where we go next in this sector.”
And, Wells Fargo is pleased with this first phase of its IN2 expansion. The “IN2 Food, Energy, Water Landscape” white paper and the research that went into it, will help us pinpoint our focus on the areas where IN2 can have the greatest impact,” said Ramsay Huntley, Clean Technology and Innovation Philanthropy program officer with Wells Fargo. “Moving into agtech is key to creating the smart, connected, sustainable communities at the core of IN2’s mission and supporting Wells Fargo’s goal to accelerate the transition to a low-carbon economy.”