Helping Food and Farm Entrepreneurs Access R&D Funding

Idella Yamben, Ph.D., shares how the Wisconsin Center for Technology Commercialization helps early-stage businesses test assumptions and secure grants to foster commercialization.

In Edible-Alpha® podcast #121, Brad talks with Idella Yamben, Ph.D., director of the Center for Technology Commercialization (CTC), which, like FFI, is part of the University of Wisconsin System’s Institute for Business & Entrepreneurship. CTC offers a variety of programs and resources to help early-stage technology businesses—including those in the food or agriculture space—develop and conduct research to inform commercialization strategies and access funding to support the work.  

Idella insists that research and technology aren’t only about next-gen gadgets, machine learning, or university lab studies. CTC mainly works with inventors who have a novel approach to addressing a critical problem. For instance, maybe a farmer thinks of a way to boost crop yields, or a food entrepreneur wants to assess a new manufacturing process. CTC could help them determine how to test their hypotheses, business models, and market viability.

“You might not think what you’re doing could use technology, be innovation, or require research,” Idella says. “But my team’s job is to see if those opportunities are there and help you go after federal funding.”

One of CTC’s offerings is Ideadvance, which provides companies with seed money to test their business models through the Lean Startup framework. It helps them hone in on their target consumer, path to market, positioning, etc., to give the product, service, or solution the best chance of success.

CTC also prepares entrepreneurs to apply for Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) and Small Business Technology Transfer (STTR) programs, aka America’s Seed Fund. Through this highly competitive program, 11 government agencies, including USDA, offer grants for early-stage R&D.

Through all of its programs, CTC helps startups test assumptions, which Idella says is basically the scientific method: “You make a hypothesis, develop an experiment, run it, then iterate.” But to ensure the best outcomes, she says it’s important to take a very disciplined approach to determine what that assumption and experiments should be. CTC helps entrepreneurs do that, often in partnership with industry-specific resources such as FFI.

A key piece of the Lean Startup model is customer discovery, which involves both listening to potential customers and then running experiments to validate what an entrepreneur thinks they heard. Ideally, the results can provide answers around cost, revenue, or value proposition.

Idella says those findings should then be balanced against the team’s goals and unique capabilities, which will help differentiate the business proposition. Through this process, entrepreneurs learn to synthesize information and become storytellers, both important skills for seeking any kind of financing.

Also through this work, entrepreneurs typically meet a lot of people and learn a ton. By listening well, Idella says they could identify a new angle, a different problem, or an opportunity to pivot. And pivoting early could save a lot of headaches—and money—later on, potentially even preventing a failed business.

Brad and Idella cover a whole lot more in this engaging podcast, including the many free tools, resources, and funding sources available to food and farm entrepreneurs.