Grow-NY announces four area finalists

Ag-tech startups compete for $3 million

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A recent announcement revealed that four Ithaca-based startups are among the 18 finalists for Grow-NY, a food innovation and agriculture technology business competition focused on enhancing the emerging food, beverage and agriculture innovation cluster in central New York, the Finger Lakes and the Southern Tier.

Empire State Development and Cornell University’s Center for Regional Economic Advancement announced the finalists mid-September, and Ithaca startups Whole Healthy Food, Capro-X, CombPlex and Halomine were all on the list.

They, along with the other finalists, represent the top 10% of 199 submissions from around the world including 112 from New York, determined by a panel of 30 independent judges from food, beverage and agricultural businesses and academics, a recent press release reported.

“It’s a way to get funding, and it’s always hard to get funding as a startup,” said Ted Eveleth, CEO of Halomine. “Highlighting the strength of the area, I think, is critically important to the New York ecosystem for business innovation.”

Though these startups are all from Ithaca, they cover a wide range of agricultural issues. Whole Healthy Food develops new food ingredients with therapeutic benefits; Capro-X upcycles dairy waste into valuable biofuels and bioplastics; CombPlex eliminates pests that threaten the health of honeybee hives; and Halomine creates antimicrobial solutions to ensure food safety.

These descriptions, though, only tell half the story.

Jinzhou (Joel) Li, originally from China, started Whole Healthy Food to help his wife cope with her gestational diabetes. His foods include a protein that has been proven to inhibit starch absorption, which reduces blood glucose level and combats weight control, helping his wife and anyone else who is living with type 2 diabetes or pre-diabetes.

Juan Guzman Jr, CEO at Capro-X, was inspired by the vast amount of waste produced by Greek and strained yogurt companies in New York. His product takes that and other waste off the companies’ hands and turns it into green chemicals that can be reused in food and beauty products as a replacement for unsustainable palm oil derivatives.

“What Capro-X is able to do is take that waste and do fermentation on it,” Guzman said. “The bacteria produce these green chemicals, and we extract it out and we have customers that are able to buy them from us.”

Hailey Scofield and Nathan Oakes, founders of Combplex, are current graduate students at Cornell University that started collaborating several years ago to come up with a solution for monitoring bee activity without opening the beekeeper’s frames.

After interviewing many beekeepers with their idea, they discovered a much larger need; honeybee populations were being decimated by varroa mites, which are essentially ticks for bees. Their solution? Lasers.

“We have a bee frame that is equipped with a patent-pending little corridor for the bees to walk through,” Scofield said. “We can see if the bee is carrying a mite on her abdomen and then hit it with our stationary laser as she passes through. And this offers a no-side-effect, chemical-free way of treating varroa mites year round.”

Halomine was founded by a four-person team including CEO Ted Eveleth and Chief Technology Officer Mingyu Qiao. Qiao got his Ph.D. at Auburn University, where the M-Halmoine molecule – a “battery for chlorine,” as Eveleth put it – was invented. The startup’s product, Halofilm, uses this molecule in a spray to create a thin, protective film over non-food contact surfaces.

“Food safety is critically important,” Eveleth said. “This problem of antibiotic-resistant organisms is only going to get worse over time. … If we don’t find methods to keep ourselves safe, we’ll have a lot of trouble.”

Grow-NY finalists will pitch their business plans to a live audience and panel of judges at the Grow-NY Food and Ag Summit, held at the Rochester Riverside Convention Center on Nov. 12 and 13.

They will be judged based on five criteria: viability of commercialization and business model; customer value; food and agriculture innovation; regional job creation; and team. If you ask any of the Ithaca finalists, they all meet and exceed these criteria.

“I think that there’s no question,” Oakes said. “We kind of knock it out of the park in terms of the team aspect, … [and] we’re really confident that we have arrived on a product that really is adding a ton of value for our customers.”

All finalists plan to create jobs in the area, manufacturing their product in the state if not in Ithaca itself. All representatives said they are meeting a clear demand that represents a significant reduction in cost and/or an increase in value for the customer. Pre-trials, tests and feedback have been positive so far for everyone.

The finalists will all be considered for one of seven available prizes, totaling $3 million: a $1 million top prize, two $500,000 prizes and four $250,000 prizes. Unsurprisingly, all startups interviewed said they are shooting for the top prize.

“Our plans for Grow-NY are to keep our headquarters here and keep all of our R&D efforts here as we try to optimize the process over the next couple of years until we get to market,” Guzman said. “The goals of Grow-NY, of giving funds to innovative companies to help them grow and stay in the area, is exactly what we’re trying to do.”

Halomine expressed similar prospects.

“We are looking forward to getting this onto the market and start selling it,” Eveleth said. “When people are using your product and you know that that’s adding value and, in this case, making the food supply safer, that’s going to be a great feeling.”

To help them on their journey, all finalists receive mentorship from a business advisor, pitch training, networking introductions, business tours with potential partners and more. For those interviewed, these resources make the Grow-NY competition worth it, even if they don’t win any money from it.

“The most exciting part is to get more interaction with agricultural or industrial people, … so that’s really eye-opening for me, and I’m very excited about talking about business and technology and research,” Qiao said.

Scofield and Oakes, the only two grad students of the Ithaca bunch, said they are grateful for the chance to grow and learn as individuals and develop their product to be the best it can be.

“We are coming at this from the perspective of engineers and scientists and are learning to speak business as a second language, and so, that’s really the huge amount of value that’s being added to our experience,” Oakes said.

Li said he’s honored to be included among the finalists, and his mentor has been a huge help along the way.

“It’s a really good feat for us,” Li said. “They actually push us to think more for how we can do our business well.”

Though those interviewed said they’re mainly focused on perfecting their pitch and their product, Oakes and Scofield said they’ve looked at the other Ithaca finalists, and they and everyone else has their work cut out for them.

“It’s a strong group of competitors, and we’re really impressed with the breadth and diversity of the Grow-NY food and agricultural ecosystem,” Oakes said. “The panel … definitely has a tough task ahead of them.”

The Grow-NY winners will be announced in the grand finale at the summit in November. Good luck to everyone.

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