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Building Momentum for New Uses

If AURI’s annual New Uses Forum is any indication, the entrepreneurial spirit is alive and well and living in Minnesota. Generating new ideas is important, but equally valuable is a recognition by the state’s business and agriculture leaders that collaboration and a network of supporting resources are key to delivering on the promise innovative ideas present.

The fourth annual New Uses Forum will be held April 8-9, 2020 at the Earle Brown Heritage Center in Minneapolis. The event, created to accelerate innovation and investment in value-added agriculture, ultimately utilizing more Minnesota agricultural commodities as a result, has rapidly gained momentum and recognition.

Nan Larson, AURI’s Director of Innovative Networks, says in its first two years, the New Uses Forum’s primary focus was on value-added agriculture. The first event attracted 120 people while 180 participated in year two. She says since its inception, the forum evolved and added key partnerships and focus areas, which helped grow the New Uses Forum into a premiere regional event. Larson says registrations in 2019 climbed to over 400 participants from 16 states.

“In year three, we partnered with Compeer Financial and Georgetown University’s Rural Opportunity Initiative, adding to the mix a strong financial resources component,” Larson says. “In addition, we included Minnesota’s first Open Innovation Reverse Pitch session, which will also be a part of this year’s event.”

Connecting Resources

Compeer Financial came on board as a partner for the 2019 event. Compeer Financial is a Farm Credit cooperative that serves agriculture and rural communities in Minnesota, Illinois, and Wisconsin. The organization is renewing their partnership role for the 2020 New Uses Forum.

“It lines up with our mission to enrich rural America and agriculture,” says Aaron Knewtson, Compeer Financial vice president for food and agribusiness. “As a later-stage investor and lender, we always look for ways to make sure we’re investing capital in rural America because we want to support emerging ag businesses.”

Many entrepreneurs and agribusinesses that look to expand or develop new ag-based products face a need for capital, so Knewtson says the New Uses Forum was a logical fit for Compeer Financial.

“As it relates to new uses, we support it because it supports the entrepreneurial community, which is strong in Minnesota. We look at what we can do to back developments in food and biobased products,” Knewtson says. “As an organization we want to support those industries as well as the entrepreneurs, and Minnesota is a good place to do it.”

Because entrepreneurship and business development are multi-faceted, the New Uses Forum draws a wide array of participants. Larson says the forum targets ag innovators, farmers, resource providers, commodity group representatives, industry, banks, venture capitalists and other financiers, as well as representatives from academia, including students. The event also draws numerous government officials.

“AURI started this event to create a platform for awareness and dialogue about exciting changes around innovation in the food and ag space, to share insight on how to advance innovative ideas that advance the agricultural industry, especially around investment capital and technical resources,” says AURI Executive Director Shannon Schlecht. “We wanted to better connect resources and needs, and to further expand participants’ networks to accelerate opportunities.”

Schlecht says the New Uses Forum became an even more collaborative event since Compeer Financial and Georgetown University’s Rural Opportunity Initiative became partners in curating the event.

“This brought in new perspectives and participants that really add to the content and diversity in participants,” Schlecht adds.

Who You Know

Decades of working with existing and emerging businesses has reinforced to AURI staff the notion that an entrepreneur’s resource network greatly affects success. As the business axiom explains, ‘it’s not just what you know, it’s who you know.’ That’s why the New Uses Forum is open to anyone interested in innovation and advancing ideas in the food and agriculture space.

“Last year, we had producers, entrepreneurs, Fortune 500 representatives, private equity, banks, coop members, political representatives and several other stakeholder organizations all in the same room for these dialogues,” Schlecht recalls. “At its core though, the event brought the agricultural industry value chain players together to really focus on value-added challenges and opportunities.”

Resources are available to help businesses, but that support is only valuable if entrepreneurs and others know what’s out there and how to access it.

“There is value in making connections,” Knewtson says. “The New Uses Forum helps entrepreneurs find marketers and mature businesses to help them solve problems and develop new ideas.”

Delivering Value

Larson says feedback from previous New Uses Forum participants is overwhelmingly positive and interest in the 2020 New Uses Forum is strong. While a successful event is important, even more valuable are the connections made between businesses and the resources available to support them. Larson says some successful relationships have developed as a result of the forums, but because those dealings are confidential, she isn’t at liberty to comment on their nature. However, those relationships are evidence that the New Uses Forum is delivering on its promise.

Schlecht says the New Uses Forum’s mission is three-fold – to inspire, accelerate and connect. The event is designed to inspire participants to advance their idea to the marketplace as they uncover resources, services and collaborators at the event; to accelerate some of the innovative happenings AURI sees on the ground each day through further network creation; and that connections are made across different segments of the value chain that don’t typically interface since this event brings together a diverse audience.

“What amazes me each year is the ‘buzz’ throughout the roughly two-day session,” Schlecht says. “It is often challenging to get the next session started on time as participants engage with each other about the previous session. That is testament to both the quality of the content the event curates, with regional and national subject-matter experts on various topics, but also participants engaging in dialogue to foster opportunities in this space.”

AURI works in the areas of food, biobased products, coproduct utilization and renewable energy. Schlecht says all of those agriculture sectors show promise and will be represented at the 2020 New Uses Forum.

“The local food movement continues to create enthusiasm and interest for new products, as do sustainability metrics and how byproducts/coproducts can be further utilized into new opportunities,” Schlecht explains. “While we don’t see a great number of projects in the biobased area currently, interest is growing, offering great opportunity for Minnesota and the region.”

“We want these efforts to result in value creation in Minnesota because of shared knowledge,” Knewtson adds, “and if we attract more investors to Minnesota, that’s a win. If we end up funding new products, that’s part of our goal as well.”

Reversing the Pitch

At the 2019 event, AURI launched a “reverse pitch” concept at the forum, which included industry challenges from larger food and agriculture businesses. The concept turns the traditional model of pitching novel ideas 180 degrees. Leading food and ag companies gathered to share their industry challenges and then invited an audience of researchers, entrepreneurs, producers, and innovators to propose novel ideas to those problem areas.

“The reverse pitch was a fantastic addition to the program to illustrate the range of innovation needs at both the entrepreneurial level and Fortune 500 level,” Schlecht says. “We are working to incorporate this type of platform again at the 2020 forum.”

In addition to the reverse pitch process, the April 2020 New Uses Forum will include keynote speakers and panel discussions addressing issues in food, biobased products, renewable energy and coproduct utilization. Other sessions will feature experts in capital resources and consumer trends as well as ample time for networking. In addition, AURI will announce its 2020 Ag Innovator of the Year during the New Uses Forum.

Still A Need

AURI formed in the 1980s in response to the farm crisis when commodity prices were low, agriculture and rural economies struggled, and farmers needed new opportunities. Identifying and supporting value-added uses helped to create new markets for agricultural products, thereby increasing demand. Thirty years later, uncertain export markets for farm commodities illustrates the ongoing need for value-added development.

“It’s extremely important as we face trade uncertainty for the agriculture market,” Schlecht contends. “Exports are extremely important to the producer bottom line but growing other value-chain opportunities to manage market risk is increasingly of interest. This event can help start those conversations and showcase value-added opportunities to further the ideation and commercialization pathway opportunity.”

More information, including an event agenda and registration materials, is available at