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Reflections of an Agtech VC: Gabriel Wilmoth Joins Growers

Gabriel Wilmoth.

Gabriel Wilmoth has left Syngenta Ventures, where he was investment director, to join ag startup Growers, an on-farm service that helps farmers use technology to simplify their business, as the chief operating officer.

Wilmoth joined Syngenta Ventures in 2013 as an investment analyst and was promoted twice before leaving. He held various agricultural and financial roles beforehand.

Wilmoth was responsible for closing a series of deals from the Swiss agrochemical company’s venture arm during his time there, including sitting on the board of Blue River Technology, the robotics startup that was acquired by John Deere, and more recently working on Asilomar Bio’s Series B as revealed by AgFunderNews earlier today.

We caught up with Wilmoth to find out more about his new role and to get some of his key takeaways from his time as an agtech investor.

I want to hear more about Growers in a minute, but does this mean things are changing at Syngenta Ventures?

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Absolutely not. Things are as exciting as ever! It’s been a busy year for ag investments in general, and certainly for Syngenta Ventures. We just announced our investment in Asilomar Bio, and stay tuned for more news soon.  

You joined Syngenta Ventures in 2013.  How has the ag investing landscape changed in recent years? 

Actually, I started working with ag-related startups back in 2002, when I worked for the University of Kentucky College of Ag. To get a sense of where the industry was then, go read Lords of the Harvest, which is still the best book on the birth of ag biotech. There were just a handful of start-ups then. Fast-forward to today; we have this groundswell of interest around food and ag issues, dozens of accelerators and programs like Thought For Food bringing young entrepreneurs into ag, enough start-ups to fill multiple market maps, and somewhere near $1 billion of dedicated ag-focused capital. Every source has their own total, but around $1 billion is the total I can add up based on the funds that do similar early-stage, agtech investment as Syngenta Ventures.  

What was your proudest achievement during your time at Syngenta?

The Blue River Technology investment clearly stands out. Not just the exit to John Deere, but all the work leading to the initial investment, and then getting to work with the team at the Board level. The investment was a great fit for Syngenta Ventures because Blue River’s precision spraying technology is relevant for Syngenta’s core business in crop protection. Post-exit, it looks like a foregone conclusion that Blue River was destined for success. But before the investment in 2015, and even after, there were plenty of intense conversations about how much money it would take to get to the next stage and how to prioritize. I have enormous respect for Jorge, Jim, Willy, Ben and team, and what they achieved, and now they have a great partner in Deere. I couldn’t be prouder to have played a small role in that journey. 

What was the most defining moment for agtech investing in recent years?

As others have pointed out, the 2013 Climate Corp exit was the watershed deal that helped put ag on entrepreneurs’ and investors’ minds. Interest was building in the ag sector from the cleantech boom and from the 2010-2012 run-up in commodity prices as a catalyst, but Climate’s $1 billion exit marks the defining moment. It remains an outlier, for that matter. I swear every company that pitched for the next two years showed Climate Corp as their most logical comparable!  

Are there any challenges you see with the growing interest in agtech?

Of course! You always have folks who jump in because they think they can make a quick buck. I hate to break it to them, but selling products to farm customers can be brutal. My real concern now is that you’re seeing a divergence between the value that can be created with many ag technologies—which ultimately drives grower willingness to pay and exits—and start-up valuation expectations.  

Generally, I think this divergence occurs because agtech investing is the confluence of two different worlds: you have the VC and tech epicenters on the coasts, and you have the rural heartland, where commodity prices are stuck in the fourth year of a downturn. When AgFunder data says the median seed round valuation is something like $6m, first-time agtech entrepreneurs expect to get similar valuations. Yet, the macro farm environment creates this ceiling on exits. If valuations get too high, the venture math doesn’t work. I caution the entrepreneurs I work with to try not to let the valuation get too far ahead of the fundamentals on the farm.

Why are you joining an agtech start-up?

Good question! There’s a lot that I’ll miss about working with Syngenta Ventures, but I believe there’s always an opportunity for start-ups that are creating real value for farmers.  

On a more personal level, I love agriculture. I love working with farmers and entrepreneurs and new technologies to try to produce more good food with fewer inputs. We all know agriculture is essential, yet it’s also one of the most destructive things we do to the environment. My contribution to a better world is to use technology and my energy and passion to try to change that, to build highly productive agriculture systems that are more sustainable. You can see that thread in every investment I’ve been involved with at Syngenta Ventures: AgrimetisGreenLight Biosciences, Blue River, Premier Crop Systems and Asilomar Bio….Joining Growers is another step in that path, where I see potential to make a tremendous impact on farmers by addressing a bottleneck that I observed in hundreds of pitches. 

Tell me a little bit more about Growers and this bottleneck.

Growers focuses on helping farmers capture more value from their fields, their equipment, and their data. The premise is simple: make the pieces of technology work together, make the data easier to understand, and then help farmers make better, more profitable decisions.    

The bottleneck that always struck me as an investor is that there are hundreds of technologies that work, whether it is biological crop protection agents, aerial imagery, or variable rate seeding. The challenge of ag innovation is not about the technology!  It’s about getting adoption on the farm. That requires understanding what technology fits in a farmer’s unique system, building trust and a relationship, and walking with the farmer through the learning curve. Growers does this with a direct-to-farm, high service model.    

Many agtech companies fall short in this last step. Think of the hundreds of millions that have been spent in the digital space in recent years. What is the real adoption rate? I’d argue that no company has yet figured out how to sell digital solutions to farmers. Given that context, I think the team at Growers has as strong a chance as any to succeed. We’ll see!

Besides Growers and the companies you’ve invested in, what else do you think is cool tech on the horizon?  

There’s so much cool stuff out there! I’m a big fan of ground-up, farmer-led innovations. Not all of this is investible from a VC perspective, but here’s a few on my short-list of innovations to watch:

The whole soil health movement, which would include low-input systems like what Gabe Brown is doing in the Dakotas; perennial polycultures from Wes Jackson and the Land Institute; customized soil microbiomes, like what Diane Wu and Poornima Parameswaran at Trace Genomics are working on; and advanced intercropping from farmers Derek and Tannis Axten, Loran Steinlage, or Jason Mauck.

The wave of gene editing technologies, broadly speaking. To date, teams have been going after obvious targets: ripening and quality, herbicide tolerance, pathogen resistance, etc. What’s going to be fascinating—a little unnerving—in a few years are the more creative applications that hackers will envision. 

Approaches for better, more rapid breeding, like what the Hickey Lab in AU is doing or the pollination work from Accelerated Ag Technologies.

Cashless farming and novel insurance approaches, for example, from Indigo and S4 or Crop Pro respectively. My Syngenta colleague Shubhang Shankar recently quipped, “in the long run, ag veers toward finance,” and these business model innovations speak to that.   

Where we’re not seeing enough innovations is on the equipment and operations side. I would say, practical IoT for the farm remains a few years off. 

Finally, what advice would you give to venture capital firms and employees entering agriculture for the first time?

Get out of the office and go to the farm! Go meet with farmers. I do it every chance I can, and I always learn something. Which reminds me of an important lesson: ag is local. Every county has a different set of soils and weather and crops and markets. You can’t develop effective solutions unless you understand that local farm context.  

If there is one other piece of advice, it would be what one of my mentors shared when I started in VC, which is “remember the world is round and small.” You will quickly get a reputation for how you treat entrepreneurs, investors, and industry players and for the value you bring to the companies you work with. This is a people business, and those relationships determine your success.

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