NBDC Helps FarmAfield Get Off the Ground
When he worked as a research assistant professor at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, Mitch Minarick could enlist the help of a grant writer who was a member of the university staff.
But that wasn’t the case when he sought grant funding for his private business, FarmAfield, an online marketplace enabling farmers and ranchers to buy and sell production contracts.
Instead, he got the help he needed from the Nebraska Business Development Center (NBDC).
Minarick gained insight into the necessary steps by attending small business grant writing workshops hosted by NBDC. He says Wei Jing, director of the NBDC technology commercialization program and SBIR/STTR consultant, also helped the company with information and market research. Minarick plans to meet with NBDC State Director Catherine Lang to learn more about the resources available to technology start-ups in Nebraska.
“There is good money out there in the form of SBIR (Small Business Innovation Research) grants and other grants, but it’s really challenging if you don’t have someone with experience to guide you,” he says. “These grants are a lot easier to write the second time around.”
Minarick founded FarmAfield after an agricultural development trip to Africa helped him better understand how vulnerable agricultural systems can be without adequate support, and how often critical tools and support systems in developed countries are taken for granted or neglected.
He says the rapid proliferation of cellphones and data access in rural areas around the world opens many possibilities for farmers and ranchers to connect to new markets and tools, and FarmAfield will forge these connections.
With FarmAfield, buyers of crops or livestock agree to pay for the costs associated with raising them, in exchange for the proceeds from their eventual sale. These production contracts have been part of the agriculture industry for years, Minarick says. FarmAfield makes them more accessible worldwide by maintaining an online marketplace of partnership opportunities, standardizing the agreements, and brokering the transactions.
“There is definitely a lot of potential internationally, especially in Africa and other less-developed ag markets,” he says.
The idea for FarmAfield originated with Minarick while he was a grad student in Illinois, but he launched the company in Nebraska because of the unique support provided by the NBDC and other state-level programs, as compared to those in Illinois. Upon joining the faculty at UNL, he reached out to his brother Andrew, along with Brennan Costello and Matt Foley, while the three were students there, to help grow the business.
The following year, Andrew Minarick, Costello and Foley comprised a team that finished among the top 10 at an international conference in Switzerland exploring innovative ways to boost global food production.
FarmAfield built upon that recognition by obtaining a SBIR Phase I grant from the National Science Foundation for research and development. The company plans to apply for a SBIR Phase II grant, which can be used for commercialization.
Mitch Minarick says NBDC is one of many Nebraska resources available to start-up companies like his. “I’ve seen what exists in other states, and Nebraska just seems more united behind new businesses and emerging technologies,” he says. “Everyone wants to see you succeed, and it is really helpful when you have organizations like NBDC to connect you.”
Pictured: Matt Foley, Mitch Minarick, Andrew Minarick, Brennan Costello