The second Grow-NY food and agriculture business competition is going on as planned, with new safety practices in light of the COVID-19 pandemic, organizers and state officials said May 14 during a virtual briefing.
Funded by Empire State Development through its Upstate Revitalization Initiative, and administered by Cornell’s Center for Regional Economic Advancement, Grow-NY is a business competition focused on growing an enduring food and agriculture innovation cluster in a wide swath of central and western New York state.
Last year’s event attracted 199 applicants from around the world, and more than 900 attendees to the Grow-NY Summit in Rochester. A total of $3 million was awarded to the top food and ag startups, including a $1 million top prize to Geneva, New York-based RealEats America, a premium meal prep delivery service.
This year’s summit is scheduled for Nov. 17-18 in Syracuse; applications will be accepted through July 15. In addition to the live pitch competition, the event will include a symposium featuring conversations about the region’s food and agriculture production and innovation opportunities.
Crowd restrictions due to COVID-19 are still to be determined, but the competition and symposium will continue, organizers said.
Lt. Gov. Kathy Hochul was among the state and local leaders who spoke about the value Grow-NY will bring in strengthening the state’s economy and growing jobs at a time when it is very needed.
“Now more than ever before, New Yorkers and all Americans truly appreciate the food in the grocery stores and on their tables,” Hochul said at the virtual briefing. “We know how critical food and agriculture is to our economy. That’s why one of my favorite programs is Grow-NY, a global competition designed to strengthen these economies throughout the Finger Lakes, Southern Tier and central New York. By investing in startups and innovation, we can enhance these food supplies and job creation, both critical elements to restarting our economy.”
Grow-NY program director Jenn Smith said the program will adhere to strict safety guidelines, and may have to change its plans in the coming months based on the evolving public health situation.
“Round 2 of the competition is moving forward,” Smith said. “Changing health and safety conditions may affect our ability to convene the finalists, judges and panelists in Syracuse, in which case we will adapt the pitch and symposium to be entirely virtual productions.”
During the virtual briefing, which drew approximately 300 attendees, past competition winners – including Dan Wise, CEO of RealEats America, and Aliya LeeKong, the company’s culinary head – described how Grow-NY is helping build strong businesses in the Grow-NY region, comprising the Finger Lakes, Central New York and the Southern Tier.
“We’re really supporting the ecosystem and the farms that are around us, and we’re also delivering food to the centers of concern,” LeeKong said. RealEats America sources its ingredients from small farms within a 200-mile radius of its headquarters.
“We’ve really created a nice system up there of production and distribution that is in lockstep with New York state,” LeeKong said. “I really think that Grow-NY is poised to become that checkmark of sorts for many businesses in the region, or businesses that want to invest in the region.”
For Adam Fine, founder and chief technology officer of Syracuse-based startup Dropcopter, which won $500K at last year’s Grow-NY, the competition experience yielded a lot more than the prize money.
“The network through Grow-NY, to Cornell specifically, was instrumental for us,” Fine said. Dropcopter specializes in aerial pollination of orchards via unmanned aircraft systems.
“We had been trying to work on a project with Cornell for a long time, since we came to Syracuse, and bridging that gap has always been difficult, to get the research we wanted to do started,” he said. “We’ve done some independent research ourselves but getting the work with Cornell has always been the key to unlocking the industries we work in, so now we’re doing that.”
Sara Baier is a marketing and communications specialist for the Center for Regional Economic Advancement.