UACES Facebook Agri-Food Innovation Summit inspires entrepreneurial scientists to make big impacts
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Agri-Food Innovation Summit inspires entrepreneurial scientists to make big impacts

Nov. 7, 2023

By John Lovett
University of Arkansas System Division of Agriculture
Arkansas Agricultural Experiment Station

Fast facts

  • Inaugural Agri-Food Innovation Summit held in Fayetteville Nov. 2-3
  • Tips offered for obtaining federal funding for seed money
  • Venture capitalists say proof of a strong team is key

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FAYETTEVILLE, Ark. — The inaugural Agri-Food Innovation Summit offered entrepreneurial scientists and inventors inspiration to make “moonshot” impacts on society and insight on obtaining startup funds.

Jean-Francois Meullenet, Mickey A. Latour and Ranu Jung
AGRI-FOOD INNOVATION — Jean-François Meullenet, left, director of the Arkansas Agricultural Experiment Station, speaks during a panel discussion at the Agri-Food Innovation Summit with Mickey A. Latour of Arkansas State University and Ranu Jung with the Institute for Integrative and Innovative Research (I³R) at the University of Arkansas. (U of A System Division of Agriculture photo)

Venture capitalists and representatives from federal funding agencies expressed the importance of collaborating and building strong teams to solve problems. The event was held Nov. 2-3 at the Don Tyson Center for Agricultural Sciences in Fayetteville. More than 200 participants registered over the two-day summit co-hosted by the Arkansas Small Business and Technology Development Center, the University of Arkansas Division of Economic Development, the University of Arkansas System Division of Agriculture, and Catalyst/Research and Technology Transfer at Arkansas State University.

Citing Arkansas’s rankings in food insecurity, maternal mortality and infant mortality, scientists and inventors at the summit were encouraged to think strategically about how their work could solve these and other major societal problems.

“Where there is no food, there is also no health access, so I think this link between healthy people and access to food, especially in a state like ours, is something we should be thinking about,” said Ranu Jung, associate vice chancellor and Distinguished Professor of biomedical engineering at the University of Arkansas. “Somehow, when we think about the ag side, we should be thinking about what this means for the health and well-being of the people. If you improve access to food, you might likely also influence other things like health access.”

Jean-François Meullenet, senior vice president for agriculture-research and director of the Arkansas Agricultural Experiment Station, said he would like to see an intensification of collaborative efforts by scientists in Arkansas.

“We are a small enough state that we have a unique opportunity to partner that other states may not have,” Meullenet said.

Mickey Latour, dean of the College of Agriculture at Arkansas State University in Jonesboro, reiterated that sustainable protein supply chains were an area where Arkansans could lead the charge toward more innovation.

Nurun Nahar speaks to audience at Agri-Food Innovation Summit
SMALL BUSINESSES — Nurun Nahar provides tips on applying for federal grants to small businesses during the Agri-Food Innovation Summit. (U of A System Division of Agriculture photo)

Navigating federal grants

Day one of the two-day summit included presentations on applying for Phase I and Phase II grants through the U.S. Small Business Administration’s Small Business Innovation Research and Small Business Technology Transfer programs, also known as SBIR/STTR. Nurun Nahar, SBIR/STTR program specialist with the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture, said it was essential to review the most recent request for proposal rules since they may change slightly each year. Nahar said about 18 percent of proposals get rejected immediately for not following simple submission rules. It was also important to remember the deadlines are based on the Eastern U.S. time zone, she added.

Melinda Coffman, SBIR/STTR program coordinator with USDA-NIFA, said there will be an outreach event to help applicants on April 2, 2024, in Little Rock.

Dennis Goodes, deputy assistant administrator for the USDA’s Agricultural Research Service, encouraged inventors to work with the service early in their startup process to create a Cooperative Research and Development Agreement, or CRADA, which increases the likelihood of Phase I SBIR/STTR funding. The inventor retains all patent ownership with the CRADA, Goodes noted.

To provide examples of SBIR/STTR grant success stories, summit attendees heard from two Arkansas-based company leaders: Danielle Dozier of the vertical hydroponic system manufacturer GSS Group, and Joseph Batta-Mpouma, co-founder of CelluDot, which developed a nanocellulose product to mitigate herbicide drift. Katie Thompson, executive director of Science Venture Studio, led the grant success stories session. Science Venture Studios helps Arkansas science and technology-based startups apply for federal funding.

Teamwork makes the dream work

A highlight of the event was the number of private funding organizations in attendance, said event co-organizer Trey Malone, agri-food economist and assistant professor with the Division of Agriculture.

The summit provided a panel discussion led by Mike Malone, vice chancellor for economic development at the University of Arkansas, with economic developers, seed-fund managers and venture capitalists, including Bill Arnold of Big Idea Ventures GFRF Fund; Bob Kucheravy, director of science and technology for the Arkansas Economic Development Commission; Brandon Day of The Yield Lab Institute; Jeff Amerine of Cadron Capital Partners; and Kim Davis of the Walton Family Foundation.

All panel members said that displaying proof of a strong team was crucial to their decision to provide startup funding. Davis said there was also a need to build a strong relationship with transparency and solid communication for successful endeavors.

Helping connect small and big businesses in the food and beverage industry is a mission for Kim Bryden, Arkansas-based founder and CEO of Cureate. Bryden was on hand at the summit to introduce four Arkansas food and beverage entrepreneurs offering hors d’oeuvres at the event. The companies represented included Margaret Ruth’s salad dressings and marinades, Firelight Farm in Searcy, Dogwood Hills Guest Farm in Harriet and Bartleby’s Food in Fayetteville.

“The Agri-Food Innovation Summit uplifted the incredible work happening across our food system from local farmers and entrepreneurs to researchers tackling the big questions,” Bryden said.

Bryden said the business owners featured “exemplify the future” as entrepreneurs building businesses and contributing to healthier food systems for their rural communities. 

“The conference represented a critical first step toward developing additional support systems for agri-food innovators across the state of Arkansas,” Trey Malone said. “Arkansans are proud of their storied heritage of innovation and entrepreneurship in the agri-food system. We are excited to provide a path forward for modern-day agri-food innovators and we look forward to collaborating with all thought leaders across the state to find moonshot solutions to 21st and 22nd-century problems.”

In addition to Arkansas State University, the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff also brought a team to the summit which had 134 participants on the first day and 95 on the second day.

To learn more about Division of Agriculture research, visit the Arkansas Agricultural Experiment Station website: Follow on Twitter at @ArkAgResearch. To learn more about the Division of Agriculture, visit Follow us on Twitter at @AgInArk. To learn about extension programs in Arkansas, contact your local Cooperative Extension Service agent or visit

About the Division of Agriculture

The University of Arkansas System Division of Agriculture’s mission is to strengthen agriculture, communities, and families by connecting trusted research to the adoption of best practices. Through the Agricultural Experiment Station and the Cooperative Extension Service, the Division of Agriculture conducts research and extension work within the nation’s historic land grant education system.

The Division of Agriculture is one of 20 entities within the University of Arkansas System. It has offices in all 75 counties in Arkansas and faculty on five system campuses.

The University of Arkansas System Division of Agriculture offers all its Extension and Research programs and services without regard to race, color, sex, gender identity, sexual orientation, national origin, religion, age, disability, marital or veteran status, genetic information, or any other legally protected status, and is an Affirmative Action/Equal Opportunity Employer.

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Media Contact: John Lovett
U of A System Division of Agriculture
Arkansas Agricultural Experiment Station
(479) 763-5929