Advancing the future of food and farming

Sustainable ag startups get a boost from the Wells Fargo Innovation Incubator

Lon Swanson, Sector Manager crop inputs, feed and forage, peanuts, and seeds, Wells Fargo Agri-Food Institute and Robin Wenzel, Group Head, Wells Fargo Agri-Food Institute

For generations, farmers have faced challenges posed by nature's uncertainties, often using tools like crop inputs to smooth out the ups and downs inherent to farming. Climate change, however, has intensified these challenges, demonstrating the need for tools that support farmers' bottom lines while also improving environmental performance. 

One tool that's drawing significant attention among growers is crop input management. Emerging innovations that focus on precision application and input chemistries offer a way to reduce environmental impacts, while still increasing yields, lowering production costs, and managing labor challenges. 

To understand some of the latest innovations in the crop inputs space, we reached out to leaders from four agtech startups recently selected by the Wells Fargo Innovation Incubator (IN2) to participate in the program’s 12th cohort.

Each company selected to participate in IN2 receives up to $250,000 in non-dilutive funding for technical support, including field trial projects, where appropriate. The agtech companies participating in IN2 validate and refine their technologies with support from the Donald Danforth Plant Science Center, the world’s largest independent non-profit plant science research institute, located in St. Louis, Missouri. 

HabiTerre: Building the digital infrastructure for climate-smart agriculture

Nick Reinke, Chief Executive Officer at HabiTerre, explained that his company aims to reduce manual and costly soil measurement practices through a packaged suite of advanced technologies, including remote sensing, process models, and artificial intelligence. These technologies, when put together, allow HabiTerre to more accurately quantify environmental outcomes like greenhouse gas emissions, soil carbon sequestration, and nutrient loss to watersheds, from the individual field level to the national level. 

“Agriculture has a tremendous and immediate role to play in mitigating climate change, but existing approaches to outcome quantification are not efficient or scalable,” Reinke noted.  ”Delivering accurate measurements and estimates of these outcomes with the utmost scientific rigor is just as important as scalability and efficiency.” 

Reinke believes that improved visibility into these outcomes will unlock market opportunities to reward and incentivize farmers for environmental and land stewardship. The goal is to help clarify the impacts of specific practices and illuminate opportunities to engage in the greenhouse gas and carbon marketplace.

When asked who will use HabiTerre’s product, Reinke noted that the company is focused on three primary groups: (1) corporations with agricultural sourcing footprints that have made climate commitments; (2) organizations that will help corporations meet their commitments; and (3) farmers who will benefit from insights specific to their fields and historical practices. 

As part of the IN2 cohort, Reinke noted that the program presents a great opportunity to bring together scientific accuracy and the private market to advance the science supporting agriculture as a leading solution for climate change. “We plan to engage leading scientists at the Danforth Center to put forth thought leadership on best practices for outcome measurement and estimation, and to highlight areas where further research, specifically for public access, is needed to advance the state of the science and ultimately the market’s ability to provide confidence in outcomes generated and claimed,” he explained.

Sentinel Fertigation: Using satellite imagery to optimize nitrogen fertilizer application 

Using nitrogen efficiently is key to a farmer’s bottom line, yet managing nitrogen is challenging given the complexity of the cycle. According to Business Development Representative, Shane Forney, Sentinel Fertigation’s N-TimeTM software uses multispectral satellite imagery to deliver nitrogen fertilizer application recommendations to farmers throughout the year. With this solution, farmers would only apply fertilizer when imagery shows the crop would benefit, allowing growers to maximize their yields while also optimizing for nitrogen use.

Forney explained that his target customers include precision ag services providers, independent agronomists, crop consultants, agronomy organizations that aim to help farmers produce the best and most efficient yields, and farmers who fertigate corn. 

Forney also noted that he’s hearing positive feedback from farmers who have experimented with N-TimeTM on different types of crops, including non-fertigated corn. “We have designed our solution for farmers and their agronomy providers to collaboratively make excellent nutrient management decisions,” Forney said.

He went on to add that Sentinel Fertigation is excited to be part of the IN2 cohort, viewing their participation as an opportunity to enhance their technology alongside world-class scientists at a world-renowned research institution. “It affirms the value in the work we are doing to advance win-win solutions for nutrient management,” he commented.

Impetus Ag: Turbo-charging eco-friendly crop insect control 

According to Martha Schlicher, Chief Executive Officer at Impetus Ag, more than 40% of global crop production (valued at $70 billion) is lost annually to insect pests, and the situation is worsening with a warming climate. 

She added that legacy chemical solutions, often developed decades ago, are being banned because of their impact on the environment or on beneficial insects. At the same time, new solutions are difficult to identify, develop, and commercialize.  As a result, growers are desperate for new, highly effective, and environmentally conscious solutions. 

Impetus Ag, based in St. Louis, is developing next-generation crop insect control products with an insect control platform that enhances the performance of current biological products for topical and transgenic applications. “One of the most effective products for crop insect control has been a family of proteins found in soil called Bacillus thuringiensis or ‘Bt’ for short,” Schlicher noted. “They have been used effectively for over 100 years as a spray for insect control in fruits and vegetables, and incorporated transgenically into crops like corn and cotton. Impetus technology works by ‘turbocharging’ traditional Bt products to make them work faster, better, and more broadly.” 

Schlicher added that her company is developing spray-on products for fruits, vegetables, and proteins that overcome resistant insects. For corn, soy, and cotton row crops, Impetus Ag is developing a combined solution that incorporates the spray-on products and the Bt proteins. These products will ultimately be sold to growers through traditional agricultural distribution channels. 

Impetus Ag sees IN2 as an opportunity to more quickly advance their lead solutions. “We’re excited to be able to more broadly test our proteins against additional resistant insects, to advance our testing from the laboratory to the greenhouse, to compare our proteins against commercial standards, and to gain insights into the mode of action of our proteins in combination with Bt,” Schlicher explained. 

InnerPlant: Letting plants tell us what they need to thrive

“Inefficiency and waste are glaring problems facing global agriculture and the environment,” said Sean Yokomizo, Communications Director at InnerPlant, based in Davis, California.

To address these challenges, InnerPlant creates plants that emit optical signals that are detectable from space. These signals show when plants are under attack by pests or lack water or nutrients, so farmers know exactly what plants need, where it’s needed, and when. The signals alert the farmer about specific problems within one to two days, rather than weeks, enabling timely and more efficient practices.  

“Our genetically engineered data traits change how farmers mitigate risk and enable true plant-by-plant management, eliminating the need for the blanket application of chemical pesticides and fertilizers while protecting yields and boosting sustainability,” Yokomizo noted. 

“Our founder, Shely Aronov, was introduced to genetically engineered plant biosensors used in research labs,” Yokomizo explained. “She spent time talking with farmers about the idea and soon realized that bringing those sensors to the field held tremendous potential for giving farmers needed data to fundamentally change their dependence on chemicals to mitigate risk.”

According to Yokomizo, farmers are the ultimate target market of InnerPlant’s technology. However, plant-level stress data is critical for product development and future commercial operations of companies across the value chain, including equipment providers, input manufacturers, and retailers. 

Yokomizo said their entire team was elated to hear they were chosen to be part of the IN2 cohort, with a specific goal in mind while part of the program. “We’re pursuing the discovery of new nitrogen-responsive genes necessary to create corn plants that signal optically when low on nitrogen, reducing the need for chemical fertilizers while protecting yields,” he noted.

Preserving a legacy for the next generation of growers

Simply put, healthy soil means healthy crops, and healthy crops mean greater yields and productivity. The next generation of farmers is forward-thinking and tech-savvy, looking for ways to apply technology to improve productivity amid unpredictable cycles. These innovations can be an avenue to connect with this generation in a meaningful way as they understand that land is something that you pass on, and so is the legacy.

About the Wells Fargo Innovation Incubator (IN2)

Founded in 2014, the Wells Fargo Innovation Incubator (IN2) is a collaborative effort funded by Wells Fargo and managed and run by the U.S. Department of Energy’s National Renewable Energy Laboratory. IN2 provides technical assistance and validation to promising cleantech startups, with a goal to quickly and successfully bring technologies that lower carbon emissions to market. 

Wells Fargo is proud that three additional companies, beyond the four featured, will be participating in the 12th IN2 cohort: Impossible Sensing, based in St. Louis, Missouri; Mirai Solar, based in Mountain View, California; and Running Tide, based in Portland, Maine.


Lon Swanson is a Sector Manager within Wells Fargo’s Agri-Food Institute focused on crop inputs, feed and forage (non-grain), peanuts, and seed. 

Prior to joining Wells Fargo in 2002, he previously worked for Bank of America for 15 years in the Trust Department as a Farm Manager and Midwest Regional Supervisor. Lon was raised on a crop/livestock farm in Northeast Nebraska, and he began his professional career with Oppenheimer Industries as a Farm Manager.

Lon received a Bachelor of Science Degree in Agricultural Economics/Animal Science from the University of Nebraska and an MBA from Baker University. Professional credentials include a CTFA (Certified Trust and Financial Advisor) in 1992 and AFM (Accredited Farm Manager) in 1991. He has also maintained a Kansas Real Estate License since 1994.

Robin Wenzel is a senior vice president and the head of Wells Fargo’s Agri-Food Institute, a team of national industry advisors providing economic insights, analytics, research, and reporting across the agribusiness, food, and beverage spectrum. With more than  30 years of commercial and corporate banking experience, Robin leads with a strategic vision and an ability to expand and execute on the team’s deliverables to better support Food, Beverage, and Ag customers and prospects. 

Robin received her degree in Business from the University of San Francisco with an interest in Finance and International studies. 

Robin has long been recognized for her work  as a leading voice in the wine industry in Napa, CA. She is also a recipient of the 2017 North Bay Business Journal Women in Business Award.