The “Agricultural Innovation Prize: Powered by 40 Chances,” is a student-led, student-focused competition established by the University of Wisconsin-Madison in collaboration with USDA and funded by the Howard G. Buffett Foundation. Open to any student at a US institution of higher education, it will award more than $200,000 in cash prizes annually to the best proposals and business ideas that address challenges in 21st century agriculture, such as food scarcity and availability, transportation, and sustainability.
This is an especially timely prize for several reasons. First, with fewer and fewer Americans living or working on farms, agriculture’s visibility has diminished even as the importance of America’s agricultural economy is stronger than ever. This declining involvement with agriculture is undermining the Nation’s ability to attract and train the next generation of skilled, US agricultural practitioners. By connecting students with industry veterans, professional societies, non-profits, and government and policy experts, the Agricultural Innovation Prize will help teach today’s students how to be tomorrow’s agriculture innovators and entrepreneurs.
Second, while there are many innovation incubators, accelerators, and prize competitions around the country, few are focused specifically on agriculture. This is especially troubling in light of the growing host of challenges facing the agriculture sector, including severe droughts, new pathogens and pests, concerns about the nutritional content of food and the sustainability of agricultural practices, and the security of the food production system. In fact, the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology highlighted the need for “a new innovation ecosystem for agriculture” in its 2012 “Report to the President on Agricultural Preparedness and the Agriculture Research Enterprise,” which the new prize’s founders say provided much of the inspiration that led to today’s launch. The Nation’s research community continues to pursue new scientific avenues and develop technologies that span the fields of biology, engineering, and the physical sciences and that could provide solutions to many of these challenges. The commercialization of these innovations in agriculture will require creative, interdisciplinary team efforts—precisely the kind of effort encouraged by the Agricultural Innovation Prize.
Finally, while the creation of new companies is not an explicit goal of the Agricultural Innovation Prize, there is little doubt that some of the students who participate will launch successful and lasting businesses that will lead to job creation and economic growth. Perhaps this will happen with the ideas they develop by participating in the Agricultural Innovation Prize, or perhaps they will take the lessons they learn and the connections they make from participating in this prize to start new ventures in the future. This student-training model has worked well for the clean energy sector; the Department of Energy’s National Clean Energy Business Plan Competition grew out of MIT’s student-run clean energy entrepreneurship competition. Collectively, these competitions have trained hundreds of student clean-energy entrepreneurs who have gone on to launch dozens of companies with hundreds of employees already.
This is just the start of this endeavor and OSTP applauds the student organizers and student participants who together will work to grow a new innovation ecosystem for agriculture.
Robbie Barbero is OSTP’s PPS Fellow