Grainster wins Best Idea-U.S. for Talent Unleashed in Melbourne

by Jennifer Joyner ([email protected]) 1,248 views 

Grainster chairman and CEO Layne Fortenberry.

Little Rock-based agriculture tech startup Grainster on Thursday (Dec. 7) was named the U.S. winner in the Best Idea – One to Watch category of the 2017 Talent Unleashed Awards during a ceremony in Melbourne, Australia.

Grainster Chairman and CEO Layne Fortenberry said he thought little of a request in August from members of his team who wanted to enter the Little Rock-based agriculture technology startup last-minute into a global competition highlighting innovative tech solutions. Staff handled the paperwork. Fortenberry did not think about the contest again until Oct. 23, when he received an email saying Grainster was one of three U.S. finalists in the Best Idea category.

Weeks later, Fortenberry and wife Crissy, vice chair of the company, found themselves on a trip across the globe for the awards event, where Fortenberry gave a three-minute pitch for the company’s tech-enabled grain trading platform to a panel of judges that included Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak.

The system Grainster has in development would allow farmers to offer production directly to buyers on a global level without going through brokers on both sides of the equation. “You’re cutting out the middle man,” Fortenberry said.

Peer-to-peer marketplaces have revolutionized a number of industries, and Fortenberry believes its agriculture’s turn. “Agriculture has been in sort of a dark corner, kind of behind the times.”

As the winner of the Best Idea contest, Fortenberry will now be given an all-expenses-paid trip to Silicon Valley and arranged meetings with leaders of top tech companies like Google, Tesla and Apple. He will also have lunch with Wozniak. Fortenberry said the the value of those experiences and connections far outweigh any conceivable cash prize.

Fortenberry gave comments before the finals and could not be reached following the results announcement.

The Talent Unleashed Awards, now in their fifth year, identify companies and business leaders using technology to transform the world, creating bold and inventive solutions to business challenges or social issues,” according to the organizers. Talent is a tech talent recruiting company in Australia.

Fortenberry gave his pitch and then answered questions for two minutes. There were no visual aids or slides, just Fortenberry standing in front of a microphone with the company’s logo displayed behind him. That choice was made as an attempt by Talent to put businesses of all sizes on equal footing, he said.

Finalists from the U.S. and Asia-Pacific region convened in Melbourne Thursday at an event co-hosted by Wozniak, and there was a simultaneous event in London for Europe, Middle East and Africa finalists.

The global Talent Unleashed Awards judging panel also included Sir Richard Branson, founder of the Virgin Group.

“What we are seeing with the Talent Unleashed Awards is part of a broader movement where people are more inclined to confidently stand up and say, ‘There’s a better way to do this!’ I certainly relate to this,” Branson said, according to a press release from Talent.

Other finalists in Fortenberry’s category were the founders of the California-based companies Data Center Efficiency Solutions and Nuro Technologies, which makes an intelligence-gathering sensing platform for smart home and automation products.

Winners also were named in the categories of Best Startup – Tech or Digital Innovation, Best Startup – Social or Community Impact, Most Disruptive Technology or Digital Leader and Most Progressive Workplace Leader.

Fortenberry said placing among the finalists and participating in the awards event is “validation.” Validation that the idea he had more than a decade ago and the company he has built over the last three years have a place on the global stage.

Fortenberry grew up in the agriculture business, and in 1999 his father bought a rice mill, Rice Capital in Stuttgart. Carey Fortenberry still owns and operates the company, and son Layne served as vice president until 2014 and is now on the board of directors.

Through his work in rice production, Layne Fortenberry said he had a unique perspective into the industry.

“I started trading rice and other grains and began to see a disconnect,” he said. He’d go to buy from farmers who thought they had to use a broker for purchases, when they didn’t. On the other side, he’d sell the finished product to buyers with whom he also didn’t connect with directly. “It was broker over broker over broker.”

The first model of Grainster, considered its prototype, was what Fortenberry deemed a “dating service for grain.”

A few trades were made within that platform, and Fortenberry said he gained useful feedback from farmers and buyers, including concerns about how they would be paid, the logistics.

Since then, Grainster has beefed up its infrastructure and “grown leaps and bounds,” he said. He scrapped the dating service model. “We needed a better foundation for our house.”

He made new friends in the tech industry, including Grainster President Stephen Gantz of San Jose, Calif., and adopted IBM blockchain technology as a key component of the new product.

The Grainster Ecosphere concept now has multiple pieces, including Grainster Connect, Grainster Transaction Engine, Grainster Accreditation, Grainster Logistics, Grainster Pedigree, Grainster Analytics and Grainster Concierge.

Fortenberry said he was unwilling to disclose financial information about Grainster at this time.

Even before he knew the results of the Talent Unleashed competition, Fortenberry said his team was full-steam ahead.

Grainster has several intellectual property protection applications now under consideration by the U.S. Trademark & Patent Office and aims to launch a beta test of the product in select regional markets throughout the globe in June.

Though he intends for the company to have a presence in the U.S., Fortenberry said its global approach sets it apart from competing products that are only focused on domestic transactions.

Grainster’s stiffest competition, he said, is the status quo, the agriculture commodities brokerage industry. “They don’t necessarily want it to change,” Fortenberry said.

Brokers say they play a key role in the commodities process because of their knowledge of the agriculture trade industry and their focus on the markets.

Fortenberry believes there is room for brokers within the Grainster trading marketplace to advise farmers and buyers in certain situations. However, he said, “We really need to empower the farmer.

“A farmer is truly a businessman these days, getting more and more savvy,” he said.

World trade in grains is on the rise and expected to hit 448 metric tons by 2026, showing a 14% increase from 2016, according to the Organization for Economic Co-Operation and Development-Food & Agriculture Organization of the United Nations Agricultural Outlook.

Agriculture as a whole made up close to 4% of the global GDP in 2015, according to the OECD.

Fortenberry said Grainster is not a disruptive technology. “We actually think we’re eruptive, because we are creating a whole new market.”

In the meantime, Grainster’s appearance in the finals at Talent Unleashed was Fortenberry’s first trip to Australia. When Fortenberry spoke with Talk Business & Politics in late November, he said he intended to stay in Melbourne the day after the awards ceremony, but he didn’t plan to do much sight-seeing.

“I’m actually hoping I’m so busy with meetings I don’t get to not see much more of Melbourne on Friday [Dec. 8],” Fortenberry said.