Sarah Nolet – Tenacious Ventures – Ep 17

Sarah Nolet, CEO at Tenacious Ventures

In this episode of “Let’s Talk Farm to Fork”, we’re joined by Sarah Nolet from Tenacious Ventures, who we will be talking to about how her industry knowledge of the food value chain and expertise in AgTech commercialisation has led to a position in the industry consulting startups that have gone on to help reduce the amount of annual food loss within the food value chain.


[00:00:00] Mitchell Denton: Hi there and welcome to “Let’s Talk Farm to Fork”, the PostHarvest podcast that interviews people of interest across the food supply chain.

Today on our show, I’m joined by Sarah Nolet from Tenacious Ventures, who I’ll be talking to about how her industry knowledge of the food value chain and expertise in AgTech commercialisation has led to a position in the industry consulting startups that have gone on to help reduce the amount of annual food loss within the food value chain.

So with no further delays, let’s get started.

Hi, Sarah. Thanks for joining me on the podcast today. How are you?

[00:00:31] Sarah Nolet: I’m well, thanks Mitch. Thanks so much for having me.

[00:00:33] Mitchell Denton: Oh, no worries. Thanks for joining us. before we get into it. I just wanted to give you the opportunity to tell us a little bit about yourself and what you do. And while you’re at it, maybe just a little fun fact about yourself that most people don’t know.

[00:00:46] Sarah Nolet: Sure. Um, so yeah, Sarah Nolet, partner at Tenacious Ventures. We spend a hundred percent of our time in the AgTech space, helping innovators who will have an impact, solve climate change and bring technology and innovation to agriculture, uh, I guess a fun fact about myself that most people don’t know, although maybe some people know, um, is that I’ve been a pretty competitive athlete, my whole life on sport number, like for right now, depending on how you count playing at a, a pretty competitive, national / international level.

So, uh, yeah, I spend a lot of time doing that. 

[00:01:19] Mitchell Denton: Sorry, did you say sport number four?

[00:01:20] Sarah Nolet: Yeah. So I played, um, soccer growing up and in college was an All-American and then played a bit semi-professionally. Um, also ran track, did the heptathlon, and played basketball in college. And then now for the last five years, picked up beach volleyball, and have had a go at at that here in Australia and play in the national tour and such. 

[00:01:42] Mitchell Denton: Wow. Good for you putting me to shame. I gotta get back into competitive sport.

[00:01:48] Sarah Nolet: Yeah, well, I don’t do much of anything else, it’s sort of a sports and work and that’s about it. 

[00:01:52] Mitchell Denton: Fantastic. I love that. Well, continuing on from you telling us what you do. Would you mind expanding on the journey that led to you being in such an authoritative position within the AgTech industry and what the goal is behind your work of consulting within startups and innovation.

[00:02:07] Sarah Nolet: Yeah, Sure. So we, um, I guess think of ourselves as enablers, really of innovation. So we don’t consult with anyone anymore, but we work to enable both our startups and our investors and our advisory clients, um, in this space, I guess how, like, how I got started in that really was, um, a, not a background in agriculture.

We had a hobby farm growing up and I spent time on farms throughout my life. And again, caring about food perhaps as an athlete. But really not an Ag background or a farming background, um, came at this from the tech and the business side, just seeing the potential of technology to transform agriculture and all that came about through an accidental gap year in South America.

So I didn’t start my career in Ag and didn’t grow up in Ag, but ended up there in my mid twenties on a farm in Argentina of all places. Getting interested in the power of technology and business, to help transform the food system. And that led me to really think about how innovation could be brought to market in new ways.

So not just research, uh, and not just, kind of traditional pathways, but this whole new world of venture capital and startups and innovation. And how do we do that? Bringing the best practices of Silicon Valley and sort of high tech innovation, with the grounding of people who’ve been in this industry and why value chains work the way they do.

And so bringing that combination together is what led to the creation of tenacious ventures and really our work with startups and investors, at the intersection of, of technology innovation and sustainability. So it all came about through, uh, short answer is an accidental gap year to South America.

But yeah, the longer answer is a a bit of a roundabout journey. 

[00:03:39] Mitchell Denton: Yeah, wow. No, that’s very interesting. You kind of found yourself back there where it all began. So in your line of work, you’ve obviously been on the front lines of innovation with multiple startups, uh, aiming to reach a market need. Have you recognised any common threads that can be identified across successful AgTech ventures?

No matter what the innovation might be?

[00:04:02] Sarah Nolet: Yeah Mitch, I think you really hit on it with, uh, that market need point of the question. So we see a lot of technologies or a lot of companies maybe focusing too much on the technology and not enough on the user or the problem that they have. So while a tech can be great, it’s really just a widget, right?

And if we don’t have a person who’s gonna change behaviour or put their hand in their pocket to buy something, and it’s going to make a difference in their lives or for the bottom line, then you don’t actually have a business. So we see the most successful businesses really focusing on that user and the problem they have and the business model that goes around the technology.

Uh, not just the technology itself. 

[00:04:38] Mitchell Denton: Yeah. Yeah. So what do you think is the biggest challenge within AgTech right now? And how do you think we can overcome it?

[00:04:46] Sarah Nolet: One of the big challenges is that people just don’t understand the space. It is a, and when you’re in it, it seems quite large. Everything from, you know, waste management to precision agriculture, to carbon, there’s tons in this space and it’s super exciting. 

But for someone looking more broadly at technology or innovation, AgTech is just one of many spaces you’ve got FinTech, and MedTech, and traditional software, and all these other spaces. 

And so when you look at AgTech from that perspective, it is quite confusing and complex. And so I think capital has been a challenge to come into this space because they haven’t been as familiar with it. And so what we’re seeing right now is this big interest in agriculture technology because of climate change and the potential for AgTech to help bring solutions there.

But then theres lack of understanding of this space, and so this big hesitance, so I think we’re on the brink of unlocking more capital to come in and support these entrepreneurs and scale these businesses. But there’s this challenge right now of that lack of understanding of the sector to bring that comfort and kind of unlock that capitol. 

[00:05:43] Mitchell Denton: Yeah. Yeah. So over time you’ve been across multiple continents and their local AgTech industries, uh, which countries would you say are leading the way in innovation?

[00:05:55] Sarah Nolet: I always get asked in, um, like New Zealand if New Zealand’s ahead or behind in Australia and in Australia, if they’re ahead or behind of the US. so I think everyone has their like big brother, big sister countries in some ways. 

I would say, some of the traditional ones that you’d hear about are leading, I mean, the US for sure, because of the capital markets and just the size of the space in particular, then you’ve got places like Israel and the Netherlands that are really punching above their weight on the innovation side, but you’ve got kind of fast followers, like New Zealand and Australia.

That have the basis in agriculture, agricultural research and this emerging AgTech ecosystem, really starting to punch, uh, at, or above their weight on the global stage. So, no shortage of countries and continents, playing a role in this space and that’s absolutely what we need, um, to solve both local and global challenges. 

[00:06:41] Mitchell Denton: Yeah. Great. You’re not just stroking our ego there. I mean, you are based in Australia, so there’s gotta be something good going on over here, you know?

[00:06:49] Sarah Nolet: Yeah look. And when I came here, I didn’t know that I would stay let alone stay to, to work specifically in AgTech, but, um, that has absolutely been what’s happened and, um, got lucky in some ways, but decided to stay in Australia because it is such a great place to originate innovation and work with farmers and industry here, um, to get adoption. 

[00:07:05] Mitchell Denton: Yeah. Yeah. So with investment in AgTech seeing increasing growth over the years, where would you say the biggest area of interest is? Where are the majority of investors looking to help grow and develop?

[00:07:17] Sarah Nolet: Yeah, I would say there isn’t really one space that is attracting the most interest. And that’s why it is so exciting because there are a bunch of different spaces. A couple of the hot ones though, especially in this past year in 2021 have been carbon and sequestering carbon in soil and, and other, um, you know, ecosystem services that agriculture can provide solutions to environmental challenges.

And de-carbonisation, so that’s a big one. Whether that’s measurement and verification technologies or practice change or data management. So that’s one. And then the other one that’s been really hot, especially in the past year has been alternative protein. So plant-based protein and cultured meat attracting a lot of capital with the Beyond Meat IPO and Impossible Foods, growth and expansion.

So we’ve seen those two spaces in particular take off a bit in the last year. 

[00:08:03] Mitchell Denton: I mean, this podcast alone has definitely had multiple guests in both those fields. So yeah, I mean, we must be getting the right kind of guests on, cause we’re definitely seeing a lot of that come through lately. So it’s quite interesting. 

[00:08:16] Sarah Nolet: Yeah, definitely on trend. Yeah. 

[00:08:18] Mitchell Denton: this is a bit of a two-part question. So please bear with me, uh, with the world’s farming population, growing older and an apparent decline in young farmers looking to fill their roles.

What would you say is the current relationship between older generation farmers and AgTech startups? And how does the industry feel about the adoption of AgTech to help fill the gap of farmers in the future?

[00:08:42] Sarah Nolet: Yeah.

I think there’s this sort of narrative that sometimes gets touted and I find it a little bit frustrating that says, oh, there’s all these older generation of farmers and you know, they often have like a straw hat and like straw in their mouth, their hay and their mouth, like overalls and pitchfork and, this kind of stereotypical image.

It’s like, oh, they’re getting old and they don’t want to use technology and we just need them all to die off and get the new generation in and then we’ll adopt and modernise. Obviously that’s such a limiting view for a number of reasons. 

Um, and I just don’t think it’s true. I think that technology inclination is not only tied to age, it’s also tied to business savviness and curiosity, and a maturity of operation. And so we see plenty of farmers of all ages engaging in and adopting technology. And we see plenty of farmers old and young generations not doing that because the value proposition doesn’t stack up or the business model isn’t there.

So I would say this narrative around, it’s an age thing. I think this is the point that it’s often a value proposition thing or an incentive challenge or an alignment of business model, that can really unlock adoption, not so much the age of farmers. And that narrative is actually pretty limiting both for farmers and for AgTech companies, because it really misses those opportunities. 

[00:09:47] Mitchell Denton: Totally. Totally. So, I would argue that most, if not all innovation in Ag has the overall objective of reducing food loss numbers. But can you think of a particular example that is clearly changing the way we approach certain farming practices for the better?

[00:10:03] Sarah Nolet: Yeah.

Um, so I can give an example of one of our portfolio companies. Um, so we, well, I guess two, maybe one. Directly reducing food loss, maybe less on the farming practice side, but a company called Goterra that has a waste management solution. So they use a biological process in the form of black soldier flies, in a fully automated temperature control unit.

So, maggot robots, uh, literally robots, farming, maggots, uh, that are processing food waste onsite. And so that is like directly reducing food waste and reducing methane emissions, diverting food waste from landfill. So that’s, that’s kinda one end. And then on the other end, in terms of practice change, we’ve invested in and partnered with a company called RapidAIM and they have what we call a digital crop protection layer.

So they have, um, insect pest detection sensors and analytics that can show where insect pest are, as well as predict where they might be. And so give that early warning at a regional scale of when pest pressures might be occurring. 

And that has a number of benefits for growers, but also for crop protection companies who might want to be rolling out new crop protection products in the form of biologicals or precision chemistry or other types of products, and need that confidence layer for growers to say, you know, if you’re going to transition to something that doesn’t just blanket spray and kill everything. We need that confidence to say, this is really working and we’re not going to lose the whole crop. And so it’s that digital layer. That’s really key to kind of unlocking that new practice in those new products, and that’s really what rapid aim does. 

[00:11:30] Mitchell Denton: Yeah. Wow. That’s fascinating stuff. We, we had a guest on, uh, just recently, Tamar from Eco-Fly. And, um, she, she was very much talking about, uh, the Black Soldier Flies and that, that was a completely unknown world to me and that just kind of blew my mind, just all the possibilities within that. So, that’s really exciting stuff.

[00:11:51] Sarah Nolet: Yeah. There’s no, shortage of a niche spaces, growing spaces, exciting unknown spaces in AgTech. 

[00:11:57] Mitchell Denton: Definitely. Definitely. So has the COVID pandemic for better or worse, had any effect on your day to day operations and has it had any lasting changes?

[00:12:08] Sarah Nolet: Yeah, I mean, for us as a company, in some ways, not really because we’ve always been natively remote. And so we haven’t ever had an office that we go to regularly or anything like that. And so we adapted well, in that sense. 

Um, but it does, in that we, you know, in any given year, like to spend a bunch of time on farms and in the industry, visiting our startups, visiting their, you know, operations and manufacturing, and we just haven’t been able to do that. 

One specific example is when we’re thinking about investing in a company and doing diligence, it’d be great to go meet that team and spend time with the founders and actually see their offices. And we haven’t been able to do that, obviously over the pandemic. So we’ve actually had to make some investments where we didn’t meet the team.

And then it’s been fascinating because, you know, I got to go to the US. For example for this year and I met a couple of our companies that we’ve talked to regularly on Zoom and invested in and supported. Uh, but hadn’t actually met in person for well over a year. So that’s been a change. And, um, I think it’s, it’s actually created some opportunities in some ways in that people in regional areas, or maybe who aren’t part of the traditional kind of tech and venture networks, it’s democratise the playing field a little bit in terms of being able to access capital, even if you don’t live in one of those main cities or hanging out in one of those startup hubs.

Because no one’s in them, uh, for the last two years. So I think that’s been beneficial, and it’s helped people think a little bit more about agriculture, um, as well. We’re all sitting at home for the last two years and, you know, food has been a big source of entertainment and sustenance and, uh, conversation and so everyone’s thought a little bit more about where stuff comes from.

And, you know, seeing empty shelves has made us all pay attention a bit more to supply chains. And so I think there’s a kind of rejuvenated interest in agriculture and supply chains that’s creating some opportunities and bringing some talent into this sector as well. 

[00:13:45] Mitchell Denton: Yeah, absolutely. So when it comes to food loss and sustainability within the food supply chain, what’s the biggest area you’re most curious about and why?

[00:13:54] Sarah Nolet: Um, I would say like those, those things are probably a little bit different when I think of, um, sustainability, I think more broadly about, um, you know, climate adaptive agriculture, as well as, um, agriculture being a solution to climate change and helping other industries decarbonise. And so there, I think about, how can we incentivise practice change for farmers so that they’re, contributing solutions, but also having that, not negatively impact the bottom line, actually creating more profitability and rejuvenation for regional communities.

So that’s the kind of broader sustainability banner and then food loss would be one sort of aspect under that. Where we can prevent, you know, divert waste from landfill and reduce methane emissions, um, and overall make sure that our food system is as efficient as possible in terms of delivering nutrition to people around the world.

And so in food loss, some of the areas we’ve been looking at are shelf life preservation, cold chain optimisation, you know, logistics. As much as we think about digitising the world and software being really important and all these analytics, we still have to move stuff from A to B, you can’t eat software. And so, um, that logistics piece and that cold chain optimisation and what are those assets look like as we have more autonomy and we know what fruit is going to be harvested when and where, um, starts to get pretty interesting. 

[00:15:06] Mitchell Denton: Hmm. Yeah. So continuing on with that question, uh, being the co-founder of Tenacious Ventures, is there a particular group or innovation that you’re excitedly keeping a watchful eye on?

[00:15:17] Sarah Nolet: Yes. So, um, I mean, I guess I mentioned the company Goterra before and in particular, in the, in food waste space, that’s one that we’ve partnered with and invested in, and that we’re really excited about. Um, but there’s a whole range of companies, um, in the ecosystem. I mean, we’ve made 10 investments so far out of our first fund and, uh, again, they, they.

Range from carbon to precision agriculture. Um, so companies like Regrow and Nori companies like Swarm Farm Robotics in the on-farm automation space. Um, and then in the alternative protein space that we spoke about before we’ve got Vow and nowadays in cultured meat and plant-based protein. So, um, it’s kind of like your kids, right?

You can’t pick a favourite. Um, so we’ve made 10 investments and I love them all. 

[00:16:00] Mitchell Denton: Yeah, good answer, good answer playing it safe. So unfortunately, Sarah, we are coming to a close, but before we do, I just want to ask you, what is the number one takeaway you really want the listeners to absorb from this episode?

[00:16:13] Sarah Nolet: Yeah. well, we didn’t really touch on it much, but I would say one of the big things that’s been key in our work and in our observation of the companies we’ve partnered with and worked with has been, there’s no one kind of stereotypical or quintessential view of what an innovator and agriculture looks like. 

So we see innovators who are farmers and live in regional areas who are young, who are old, who are female who look like tech, startup founders, and wear tech t-shirts and ones who totally don’t who are entomologists or world-classers, or, um, you know, aerospace engineers.

So I think that if you’re interested in AgTech and interested in innovating in this space. It really doesn’t matter what kind of background you come from, or if you fit the quote / unquote traditional mold, um, there’s room for all kinds of thinkers and perspectives and innovators in this space. And so I would just say an open innovation, uh, an open invitation rather to, to get involved.

Um, no matter what background you come from or how many years you do or don’t have on farm or in a startup, we need all kinds of, um, technology and innovation and perspective to, to solve the challenges in this industry. 

And, that’s really my call to action here is if it’s interesting to you, you know, get involved because we need all the help we can get.

[00:17:19] Mitchell Denton: Yeah. Fantastic. Well, that’s all for today’s episode of let’s talk, farm to fork. Thanks for listening. And thank you, Sarah, for joining me today.

[00:17:27] Sarah Nolet: Thanks so much Mitch for having me. 

[00:17:28] Mitchell Denton: For any listeners who would like to know more about Tenacious Ventures, check out the link in the description of this episode. In the meantime, make sure to subscribe to this podcast.

So you never miss an episode and don’t forget to review and share with your friends. 

Until next time you’ve been listening to “Let’s Talk Farm to Fork”, a PostHarvest podcast.

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