UW Student Story: Planting seeds of market change: Seedlinked modernizing seed sales

UW Student Story: Planting seeds of market change: Seedlinked modernizing seed sales

By Tyler Fox

With a master’s in agronomy and doctorate in plant breeding, Nicolas Enjalbert was working as a plant breeder at a large American company. He knew there was a better way to do things.

“I saw the limitation in current breeding practices, and I was also very aware of market trends,” Enjalbert said.

He later started Seedlinked, an internet seed broker that employs advanced analytics and crowdsourcing technology to provide a modern buying experience powered by precise recommendations.

To build this company, Enjalbert assembled a five-person team with experience in application development, data science, production farming, and entrepreneurship. Seedlinked is a culmination of these advanced practices to modernize the seed market.

In essence, Seedlinked is a service that tailors the seed-buying experience to gardeners’ and farmers’ unique climate and soil needs.

“When you go to buy a tomato seed, you can do a quick search and find around 5,000 varieties you could buy online,” Enjalbert said. “What we do is bring information about your environment and what plants do well there, to find which tomato fits your needs.”

The company is primarily targeting small- to medium- sized farms, which are farms that are under 10 acres in size. While the average size of farms today is about 450 acres, Enjalbert noted there are many farmers below the average that offset the massive industrial-sized farms.

Another target customer group is gardeners. Enjalbert ­­­and others agree gardening is the most popular hobby in the United States, and households spend an average of $400 a year tending to their lawns and gardens. Organic farmers provide an additional revenue source for Seedlinked, and its tailored marketplace tools allow choosy farmers to select breeds that work best in their environment and are certified organic.

“Consumers want a food system that is more sustainable and transparent,” Enjalbert said. “Seedlinked will fit the needs of the diverse small farm community.”

Seedlinked’s business model is two-sided in its approach: It serves growers, where it provides a diverse market for easy access to a range of producers – but it also serves producers and distributors, where it provides analytics and a unified marketplace to access paying customers. The company can benefit and modernize the experience for both parties, and it aims to do this with its advanced information processing.

“On Facebook, if you ‘like’ certain things, you’ll be shown more of that,” Enjalbert explained. “We use a similar model for plant breeding, with more variables.”

The company provides a recommendation system driven by machine learning. Customer feedback is used to gauge information about specific preferences, and they combine this with other seed reviews and geographical information. This information is used to choose plant breeds that users prefer, while also providing the highest yield for their environment.

The company is funded primarily through the Organic Agriculture Research and Extension Initiative and the Small Business Innovation Research grants. To ensure access to Phase 2 of the SBIR grant, the company seeks a matching investor. The company has 510 users on their beta platform, and projects sales from a few thousand in the next year to 50,000 by 2022.

With these sales targets, the company aims to have positive cash flow by 2023. Next steps for the company involve expanding their beta program to more users, which will bolster the wealth of information that Seedlinked already has to process.

Enjalbert said the company is overwhelmed with interest in the platform, and that they are working hard to meet this interest.

Their competitors are mostly large-scale seed producers and distributors such as Bayer, Corteva and Syngenta – though Seedlinked differentiates themselves with their recommendation-driven marketplace, instead of their competitors’ catalog model that makes decision-making difficult for customers.

And even though those three companies control 60 percent of the market, Enjalbert compares the market to when microbreweries first began to take hold in the beer industry. These breweries grew in popularity and now collectively share between 20 and 30 percent of the market.

Given that the seed-selling market is valued at $50 billion globally, according to Grand View Research, 20 to 30 percent could be a significant portion.

Viroqua’s Enjalbert will present as part of the “Diligent Dozen” in the 2019 Wisconsin Governor’s Business Plan Contest, which will culminate June 4-5 at the Wisconsin Entrepreneurs’ Conference in Milwaukee.

Tyler Fox graduated in May 2019 from the UW-Madison Department of Life Sciences Communication.