How an Agrifood Event Is Cultivating Innovation and International Participation

Rooted in New York but reaching the world online, the Grow-NY Competition and Summit provides $3 million in funding for innovative startups working throughout the agrifood ecosystem, from new farming technologies to ready-to-eat food products.

Author: Casey Gale       

two people on stage facing panel of experts

Grow-NY invites people to pitch their business in front of a panel of 30 agrifood and entrepreneurial experts for major prizes.

No one understands the importance of proper cultivation better than those who work in the food and agriculture sector. It’s no surprise then that Grow-NY Summit — a regional two-day industry event with a pitch competition, expo, symposium, and networking opportunities that brings together international startups, investors, resource providers, researchers, entrepreneurs, farm operators, and students — has been yielding big returns for six years.

An initiative funded by Empire State Development to bring economic development to upstate New York, Grow-NY invites people to pitch their business in front of a panel of 30 agriculture and food — agrifood — and entrepreneurial experts for major prizes. The competition awards a total of $3 million annually to seven winners, including a $1 million grand prize, under the condition that they will commit to setting up shop in Central New York, the Finger Lakes, and Southern Tier region. Since the program launched in 2019, finalist companies have raised more than $100 million in follow-on funding (additional funding from existing investors) and have created nearly 300 new jobs in the region.

“Having a summit to feature the competition was really a tactic to reinforce the impact that the competition would have on the region by convening the entire ecosystem of industry players,” said Jenn Smith, who leads food and agriculture startup programs for Cornell University’s Center for Regional Economic Advancement (CREA), including the Grow-NY program. The event is designed to get “all of those people in one place to look at the startups we’re considering incentivizing with investment,” she added, and then have conversations exploring the regional agrifood system’s strengths and constraints in panels, keynotes, and networking sessions.

Grow-NY 2023 was held on Nov. 14-15 at the Holiday Inn Binghamton Downtown in Binghamton, New York, and organized by VRS Meetings & Events. Its “Ecosystem Expo” hosted approximately 40 exhibitors — investors, agencies, and not-for-profit organizations — who are interested in working with businesses as they grow, therefore offering additional opportunities for agrifood and beverage entrepreneurs. “So even if you don’t win, there might be a chance that you’ll find an investor to work with you on your startup,” said Roberta Sumner, principal of VRS Meetings & Events.

Around 1,000 attended the event, evenly split between in-person and online participants. The online option, which Grow-NY initially offered in 2020 during the pandemic, has become key to making the regional event more global. “We attract startups from all over the world,” Smith said, adding that the program regularly features pitches from Australia, Israel, and India. While Grow-NY funds travel for individuals pitching their businesses at the event, it doesn’t pay for extra guests like family and friends, and so “featuring the pitches online has been a great way to reach a global audience,” Smith said. “We really wanted the online audience to have the full experience of the live pitches and the symposium conversations, which meant getting [access] to the questions that the judges are answering, the startups as they pitch, as well as being able to participate in the Q&As during the panel conversations and keynotes.”

The hybrid format is also practical for investors interested in dipping in to hear a specific pitch instead of sitting through the entire event. In 2023, Grow-NY received 323 applications from startups in 49 countries, but only 20 made it through to pitch live during the annual summit. Those 20 startups, each paired with an experienced mentor and given the opportunity to take business development trips to the region prior to the event, represent different aspects of the food and agriculture business, Smith said, because “we are a program that addresses the food system in its entirety, so it’s everything from the furthest upstream, like soil health technology, down to the best new allergen-free cookie on the market. The audience for those two things is going to be quite different, down to investors and lenders and potential strategic relationships.” And so, it’s probably not the same venture capitalist who would be interested in both “novel biopesticides and granola,” Smith said. The online offering “provides a nice way for people to dip in and out.”

people talking in lobby

Besides its pitch competition, Grow-NY features an expo, educational program, and networking opportunities.

Sowing Ideas

The symposium aspect of the event, Smith said, is key to bringing together the ideas presented throughout the wide variety of business pitches. In 2023, the event kicked off with a keynote — “Climate Beneficial Technology as an Engine for Regional Economic Impact” — given by Cornell University’s Benjamin Z. Houlton, the Ronald P. Lynch Dean of the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences; and Britt Groosman, the Environmental Defense Fund’s vice president of climate-smart agriculture.

“The intersection of the climate crisis and agriculture, obviously, continues to be a major concern,” Smith said. There is a vast range of micro-subjects within climate-smart agriculture and food production, she said, and “there’s a lot of engagement when we have talks that address it explicitly.” The event also featured talks on digital agriculture technology on small and mid-sized farms and seeding dairy innovation through entrepreneurship. On each panel, Smith said she aims to feature diverse voices for a well-rounded discussion. They include someone who is an innovator — “from a startup or [who has] graduated from a startup who has scaled their business and now they’re in growth mode,” she said — as well as someone who represents funding, like a venture capitalist, and an industry player.

“In the context of some of the panels, sometimes that means somebody who is a well-established farmer who might engage with the startup” who is represented, she said.

This year, Grow-NY will be held in November in Ithaca, New York, where Cornell University is based, and themed around “interdisciplinary work that’s being done in our region to stimulate a bioeconomy,” Smith said. The theme “conveniently” has three pillars, she said, that will easily work as panel discussions — one on net-zero dairy farming, another on upcycling and valorizing agricultural waste (as a sustainable resource), and a third on rural nutrition and making rural farms more sustainable.

Smith is confident in those topic areas, based on her track record. “Picking an idea that we’re trying to bring to life for our guests,” she said, “has been pretty successful for us.” But it’s more than the event’s theme that resonates with participants — it’s the culture it sows. At Grow-NY, Smith said, “everybody has the opportunity to feel like they belong and also, learn something.”

The Entrepreneurial Mindset

Cornell University’s Center for Regional Economic Advancement (CREA) goes beyond the Grow-NY program. Its mission is to help startups begin, upscale, and grow, and that begins on campus. Several colleagues of CREA’s Jenn Smith help teach undergraduate and graduate students the basics of entrepreneurialism.

“There’s a mindset that needs to be cultivated,” Smith said. “To give someone financial capital without helping them develop that mindset and the human capital, is really almost to do them a disservice. That’s what we’re here to do,” she said. “To teach people the best way to move forward with their startups, to increase their likelihood of scaling, and to help them pivot if it’s not going to happen.”

Casey Gale is managing editor of Convene.

Become a Member

Get premium access to provocative executive-level education, face-to-face networking and business intelligence.