By David Nicklaus, St. Louis Post-Dispatch
One entrepreneur waved a check from his first U.S. customer, others mentioned success in finding investors and one boasted about a bumper tomato crop.
All of them have been meeting monthly since January at Yield Lab, an agribusiness accelerator program based in Creve Coeur, to learn how to build their fledgling businesses. They've been introduced to, and have learned from, farmers, venture capitalists, patent lawyers and big-company executives.
As the entrepreneurs recently gathered for their final two-day session, each seemed genuinely interested in the others' successes, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch reported.
Robert Neidermyer, of organic fertilizer company Holganix, elicited smiles all around when he described the results of a trial using his product on an Indiana tomato field. It increased yields by 12 percent.
Although his fellow entrepreneurs are pursuing very different businesses, all say learning from others' successes and struggles has been a key part of the program.
"We're all trying to scale up," said Claire Kinlaw, director of product development at TerViva, which is developing an Asian tree called pongamia as an oilseed crop. "You learn a lot from how other companies are facing the same challenges."
Tomás Peña, the guy who waved the check, said he's had a lot of support from both Yield Lab staff and fellow entrepreneurs. "We will say out loud to anyone who asks: We wouldn't be where we are if not for Yield Lab."
Peña's company, S4, gathers agricultural data for lenders and investors. Through connections that Yield Lab helped it make, S4 is running a pilot program with a Midwestern insurance company.
Agerpoint, another crop-data company participating in Yield Lab, uses software to map orchards and vineyards with detailed information about individual plants. Alan Overton, Florida-based Agerpoint's director of operations, says he's pursuing possible collaborations with both S4 and TerViva.
He's also looking at proposals to map olive groves in Italy and a banana plantation in Belize, both because of publicity generated by Yield Lab.
While the entrepreneurs' learning experience has been good for their companies, it's also proving beneficial for St. Louis. When the accelerator program launched last year, it attracted 115 applications from around the world. Yield Lab invested $100,000 apiece in six companies, two of which were already based here.
The local investments are Apse, which is working on agricultural pest control, and Arvegenix, which is developing a plant called pennycress as an oilseed crop.
Both have successfully raised capital in recent months, and Dennis Plummer, Arvegenix's co-founder, says the accelerator fund's stamp of approval made that process easier.
"Yield Lab was the first investor in our funding round," he said. "They have a special place in our hearts."
All of the companies are expected to keep in touch with their Yield Lab mentors and make occasional return visits. Some will have a more permanent presence.
S4, founded in Argentina, has opened a U.S. headquarters in St. Louis. It has hired a director of operations, and Peña, the co-founder and chief executive, says he plans to move here.
Neidermyer says Holganix, based in Pennsylvania, is considering spinning its vegetable business off as a separate company. If it does so, he says, the spinoff would be based in St. Louis.
Yield Lab will give this year's class of entrepreneurs a formal sendoff at the Ag Innovation Showcase, an annual trade show at the Donald Danforth Plant Science Center. It will also begin searching for eight entrepreneurs to fill next year's class.
A year from now, they'll be sitting around the same conference table in Creve Coeur, no doubt celebrating milestones of their own.