The application window for the 2021 Grow-NY million-dollar-top-prize business competition is now open for submissions. Grow-NY is a unique initiative for food and agriculture startups that is organized by New York State and Cornell University. It connects innovators and investors in the food, beverage and agriculture.
The startup competition begins its third year with impressive momentum, organizers said, having garnered more than 460 applications from businesses originating in 32 unique states and 37 other countries over the last two years. In all, 37 finalists have been selected to date, with 14 winners sharing in $6 million in start-up funding, as well as the invaluable mentorship and networking benefits that Grow-NY delivers to finalists across its 22-county area spanning the Central New York, Finger Lakes and Southern Tier regions.
The program has already generated dozens of new jobs in the region, organizers said, having attracted high-growth food and agriculture startups from around the world to compete for $3 million in total prize money each year. Winners have also engaged with supply chain partners to create many indirect opportunities in agriculture, distribution, food processing, manufacturing and more.
“The Grow-NY competition brings together the best entrepreneurial minds in the world to boost job growth and make our agricultural industry even stronger in New York State,” said New York Lieutenant Governor Kathy Hochul. “While we continue to build back better for a more sustainable post-pandemic future, round 3 of the Grow-NY competition will bring investment and opportunity to New York’s farmers and rural communities.”
Grow-NY is also attracting more diverse leaders to the region, organizers said, as 29% of 2020’s applicants included a female founder and 32% included a founder from an underrepresented minority group.
Empire State Development is once again funding this year’s competition, with economic development support from the Upstate Revitalization Initiative’s three regional entities: CNY Rising, Finger Lakes Forward and Southern Tier Soaring. Similarly, Cornell’s Center for Regional Economic Advancement team will once again manage and administer the event, organizers said.
“This third round of Grow-NY will build on the success of prior competition winners whose entrepreneurial spirit is fueling economic growth,” said Eric Gertler, Empire State Development’s acting commissioner and president and CEO. “These innovative companies have attracted significant investment, including $11 million in follow-on funding from successful Series A rounds and National Science Foundation grants, that in turn is helping to lay a foundation for even more opportunities throughout the Grow-NY region and around the world.”
Winners are required to contribute to a thriving upstate economy in the Grow-NY region through innovation, job creation and industry ecosystem development. One finalist will receive a top prize of $1 million; two others will be awarded $500,000 prizes, and four more will be given $250,000 prizes. Winners will also receive tax incentives and publicity support to announce their achievements across the Grow-NY region and in their home regions, organizers said.
“As a premier institution of scientific learning and discovery, Cornell is a world leader in tackling complex challenges through our culture of interdisciplinary understanding and collaboration,” said Benjamin Z. Houlton, Ronald P. Lynch dean of Cornell’s College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. “Grow-NY epitomizes that culture, connecting the world to Upstate New York and vice versa, and it’s an honor to be part of the team that leads this truly transformative initiative.”
Applications must be submitted by Thursday, July 15. In September, up to 20 finalists will be assigned mentors and enter the business development phase. All finalists will receive bespoke entrepreneurial support and valuable regional introductions, additional training to hone their live pitches, and barring travel restrictions, will join an expenses-paid, three-day business development trip to the region for up to two team members, organizers said.
The finalists will then present their business plans during the Grow-NY Summit, Nov. 16-17, which this year will be a hybrid (in-person and virtual) event broadcast live from Syracuse, N.Y.
“We’ve generated international recognition for our region, with applications and media coverage from Africa, Asia, Australia, Europe and South America,” said Grow-NY Program Director Jenn Smith. “Literally thousands of innovators, entrepreneurs and investors from all over the world have been made aware of our agriculture and food processing expertise in the Central New York, Finger Lakes and Southern Tier regions, boosting our industry, academic and R&D resources along the way.”
Judges will base award decisions on the following five criteria, organizers said:
- Viability of commercialization and business model: the potential for the entrant to generate revenue and maintain a cost structure that allows for a competitive and sustainable business, demonstrate technological readiness or innovate to fulfill its value proposition.
- Team: demonstration of a level of cohesion, completeness and readiness within, and diversity and inclusion amongst the founders, employees and advisors of the business that will allow the team to deliver on its potential.
- Customer value: the degree to which the entrant is providing something for which customers are willing to pay, and addressing a substantial market.
- Food and agriculture innovation: the extent to which the entrant is pushing what’s considered state-of-the-art in the food and agriculture industries and contributing to Upstate New York’s status as a global leader in innovation in these markets.
- Regional job creation: the potential for creating high-quality jobs in the Grow-NY footprint and relevance to the existing food and ag ecosystem.
The Grow-NY region, which hosts 43.7% of New York’s 33,438 farms, includes an abundance of vibrant, fertile lands, along with such major urban centers as Rochester, Syracuse, Ithaca and Binghamton. It is a 22-county region.
Prizes are distributed through a contract with provisions tied to operating in at least one of the 22 Grow-NY counties for at least 12 months. There is also a “pay-it-forward” provision in the form of an equity warrant, or simple agreement for future equity, organizers said. Prizes will be paid in stages based on milestones reached such as jobs created, partnerships formed and localized operations achievements. To see the full agreement, timelines and eligibility criteria, visit www.grow-ny.com.
Of related interest, Cornell University recently released a first-of-its-kind report designed to guide inventors and investors toward urgent technology needs within New York’s vast farming and food processing industries, as identified by dozens of farmers, manufacturers, retailers, researchers and other key stakeholders. The goal of the report is to foster regionalization and diversity in these industries by offering evidence-based recommendations and guidance to aspiring entrepreneurs looking for opportunities in the agriculture, processing and distribution spaces. The study and subsequent report are a collaboration between Cornell’s Center of Excellence for Food and Agriculture and the Grow-NY program at Cornell’s Center for Regional Economic Advancement. The full report can be viewed here.