Ag Secretary Perdue Hears Startups Call for More Research Support

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to get a product to the market as fast as possible, Ward said. When AgBiome evaluates a microbe in a field test, the company faces more regulations than a field test for a genetically engineered crop. Perdue said the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS), a USDA division charged with protecting animal health and welfare, and plant health, is receptive to such concerns.

“We want early startups to be risk takers,” Perdue said. “APHIS’ responsibility, from a federal perspective, is to make sure that happens in a safe environment.”

One topic where the panelists were in near universal agreement was the need to improve the way agtech innovation is communicated to consumers. The public’s mistrust of agriculture stems from the failure to understand the science behind it, Barrangou said. Industry, academia, and the government must work together to communicate the science, he added.

But the two startup representatives kept circling back to federal support for research. Drach said her company would not exist if not for an $80,000 Small Business Innovation Research grant. Ward said research dollars, which help improve the understanding of how crops develop and grow, are important to supporting innovation. But he added that there is a great disparity in the dollars available from the National Institutes of Health to support health research, and the grant funding available through the USDA. The NIH pours more than $32 billion annually into medical research. By comparison, the Agriculture and Food Research Initiative, under USDA’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture, is authorized for $700 million in annual funding.

After the panel, I tracked down Drach to ask what more the USDA can do to support startups. She acknowledged that federal dollars are scarce, but suggested, for example, that tax incentives for investing in agriculture or using a new technology could help speed up adoption of new agtech products.

“When you’re an unknown company, it’s a little bit harder, because boy it sounds good, but I’ve never heard of that company before,” she said. “If they could get a tax incentive for it, that might push them over the edge.”

Drach also said that more research dollars are needed to help early agtech ideas get off the ground in the first place. One idea is shifting some of NIH’s grant funding to food and ag research. After all, many ag technologies promote human health, she said. This grant funding is crucial. For many startups, this funding helps prove a technological concept, a key step toward securing additional funding from private investors, she sad. I asked Drach if anyone has formally proposed these ideas to the USDA.

“I don’t know, but as soon as I leave you, I’m going to make sure that I do,” she said.

And with that, the farmer-turned-entrepreneur walked briskly from the auditorium to chase down the top government official overseeing U.S. agricultural policy.

Photo courtesy of Flickr user U.S. Department of Agriculture via a Creative Commons license.

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