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In Monterey Bay, an Agricultural Tech Cluster Blossoms

In Monterey Bay, an Agricultural Tech Cluster Blossoms
Image credit: Susan Barich
The Monterey Bay area grows leafy greens, artichokes, cauliflower, Brussels sprouts and strawberries, among other produce.

Editor's Note: This series takes a close-up look at the SBA's economic "clusters" designed to aid regional businesses. Read installments on Minnesota and the Carolinas

In Silicon Valley, entrepreneurs grow countless iPhone apps. A few miles to the south, in the Monterey Bay, Calif., area, the harvest is just as plentiful, if a bit more nutritious: Large farmers grow huge quantities of leafy greens and berries.

In September 2010, the Small Business Administration selected 10 economic "clusters" as part of a pilot program to aid regional businesses. Each cluster is a collaboration of businesses, non-profits and academic institutions to advance a specific sector, ranging from nuclear energy to agriculture. The idea, according to SBA chief Karen Mills, is to support small business participation in regional clusters, "which are enhancing the ability to create jobs locally and compete on a national and global scale."

Sprouting from those fields is the Project 17 Agricultural Technology cluster, which aims to bring both sides together -- the small tech entrepreneurs and the region's big farms -- to keep the agriculture industry thriving. Project 17 is part of a two-year-old Small Business Administration pilot program designed to spark innovation and get small businesses growing again.

Related: 9 Cities You Wouldn't Think Are Hubs for Tech Startups

The region's $8 billion agriculture industry, which produces in excess of 80 percent of the nation's fresh greens every year, is ripe for innovation, says Susan Barich, the cluster's director. Large growers like Dole, Driscoll’s, Monterey Mushrooms and Chiquita, which have farms in the area, have been forced to sell produce at lower prices over the past decade, putting a squeeze on profits, she said. As a result, more growers are looking to tech entrepreneurs to come up with ways to make the industry more efficient. In a sense, "we are helping to create an industry," she says.

Related: Innovators: An Entrepreneur Special Report

Project 17, which has received $1.2 million worth of funding from the SBA over the past 2 years, is perfectly situated to bridge the agriculture and technology gap. The Monterey Bay region is a short drive away from Silicon Valley, and home to a smattering of heavyweight research institutions, including the University of California at Davis’s agricultural research programs.

The cluster is named for a trifecta of local "17s," including nearby Highway 17, its 17th Congressional District, and a scenic 17-mile route through Carmel and the Pacific Grove.

In its first year, the Project 17 cluster provided more than 5,000 hours of business mentoring to small businesses in workshops and one-on-one consulting. It also produced a business-plan competition with 62 small-business participants; created two “think tank sessions” where small agriculture-technology businesses met with the large agricultural businesses in their market; and helped four small businesses sell technologies to companies in their industry.

In its first year, Project 17 reported that its regional economic development partners helped small businesses in the region and industry gain access to nearly $48 million of capital, create 285 new jobs, and retain 114 jobs.

For example, Chris Malençon, the founder and CEO of Spyglass BioSecurity, a Marina, Calif., water management and research company, says his connection with Project 17 helped him understand the specific water needs of the agriculture industry. He says he's also used Project 17 to network with “key stakeholders” in the industry, according to the cluster's annual report.

Jack and Catherine Goldwasser, the owners of Watch Technologies, an agricultural-water technology company that designs, manufactures and installs water-canal gates, also credit Project 17's connections with growing their business, according to the report. They're expecting a projected profit of $300,000 in 2012 after being nonprofitable just a couple of years earlier. Watch Technologies has hired 4 new employees and Jack Goldwasser says he has had to work 18 to 20 hour days to keep up with growing demand.

Related: 5 Technologies Changing the Restaurant Industry

Catherine Clifford is a senior writer at Entrepreneur.com.

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