When John Hartnett talks about global population growth and the need to feed an estimated 9 billion people by 2050, it sounds at first like a script taken straight from Monsanto’s GMO public relations team. Like the biotech giant, Hartnett believes we can make enough food for all of those humans with technology. But he is far less interested in biotech than gadgets and widgets in the field.
“We’re looking for the next company that can help a farmer be more efficient,” Hartnett says.
Hartnett is the CEO of SVG Partners, a Santa Clara-based investment firm. He also joined former Salinas mayor and radicchio mogul Dennis Donohue (see story, p. 21) in launching the Steinbeck Innovation Foundation in 2012, to provide essential mentorship and networking to ag tech start-ups in Salinas.
“Silicon Valley and the Salinas Valley, we might as well be on the other side of the planet,” Hartnett says. “We really haven’t had the connection we should.”
He’s ready to put money on a Salinas-based ag tech industry. In July, at Steinbeck Innovation Foundation’s ag tech summit, SVG and Forbes announced a new ag tech business incubator and challenge, the Thrive Accelerator.
More than 60 companies – some local, some from as far away as Germany, Israel and Peru – have applied. Hartnett and his team have barely begun vetting the proposals and will select about two-thirds to advance to the next level, a Shark Tank-like questioning panel from investors.
One of applicants is Patrick Zelaya, who left John Deere after more than a decade in tractor sales to partner up with two software developers and a CSU Monterey Bay computer science student. About two months ago, he launched Heavy Connect.
Zelaya is reluctant to talk specifics – Heavy Connect is still in testing, and he worries competitors could get wind of it – but says it’s a system that will gather relevant data points and transform Big Data into useful data.
“It’s like Moneyball for farming,” Zelaya says.
Ten Thrive Accelerator winners will set up shop in Salinas and get industry leaders (including Donohue) as mentors. They could also get cash – depending on how they fare with the panel of prospective investors, including Salinas-based Taylor Farms, Dole, Mann Packing and Rocket Farms.
“The whole ag world is going to go through a pretty major revolution,” Hartnett says. “Any time there’s change, there is real opportunity from an investment perspective.”