Michigan is more famous for its car industry, great lake, and big 10 universities than it is for agriculture. But about 180 miles west of Detroit is West Olive, a township located in Ottawa County founded by Dutch immigrants. With a population just shy of 5,000, West Olive is non-descript and sleepy, but it is also the base for one of the few agtech incubators in the U.S. Could Michigan be the next Silicon Valley?
ACRE AgTech was launched in the Ottawa County Government Offices at the tail end of 2014. ACRE is the acronym for AgTech Connections and Resources for Entrepreneurs. But it started as early as 2010 when the county government made a commitment to use agtech as a platform to develop jobs and the economy. In 2012, it piloted with three local agtech startups by offering them resources and services, including helping the startups license or sell client technology. ACRE AgTech also helps incubators find space locally when needed.
Some of the startups that it has helped include Grassroots Energy LLC, which produces a technology that collects ethanol at low temperatures and thus consumes less energy than at conventional high temperature extractions.
We recently caught up with Becky Huttenga, a program developer at ACRE AgTech, who shed insight on why agtech in Michigan makes sense.
Q: What was the main reason why ACRE AgTech opened?
A: ACRE AgTech began as an economic development initiative for Ottawa County. After the recession hit, we needed to kick start the economy and create jobs. A feasibility study showed that a business incubator would be a great way to do that, particularly one focused on ag technology. And ACRE AgTech was born.
Q: What kind of startups do you currently house?
A: None! We invest all of our resources into business development services, not a brick and mortar building. Our experience has been that most of our potential clients have some degree of physical capacity in terms of work space, and it is really the expertise and connections that they need. But to answer your question, we are currently working with a wide variety of different technologies, mostly related to alternative energy concepts, digestion systems, indoor growing systems, and biomass.
Q: What kind of start ups are you looking for?
A: Our doors are open to all technologies that have the potential to advance agriculture. Typically those are tools, software, or machinery, but not always. Some will be a fit for our mission, some will not. But we make sure those entities are connected with resources that can help them along their entrepreneurial journey.
Q: Why is West Olive, MI, a good place for agtech?
A: Michigan is the second most diverse agricultural state in the country, second only to — you guessed it — California. Ottawa is the third highest ag producing county in the state of Michigan and also has great capacity for food processing. Given those attributes, combined with an abundance of tech suppliers and ag manufacturing, it just makes sense for Ottawa County to be a hub for innovation in agtech.