For this edition of Ask an Expert we spoke with Catharine Young, Director of the New York State Center of Excellence for Food and Agriculture at Cornell AgriTech. Launched in July 2018, the Center serves as a hub for New York’s food and agriculture businesses to connect with the expertise and resources they need to innovate and grow.
The Center of Excellence at Cornell AgriTech is the first Center of Excellence dedicated to food and agriculture. Why is this important to New York’s economy?
Food and agriculture already is big business in New York, and growing that sector presents an enormous opportunity for the people of our state, from Western New York, to the tip of Long Island, to the five boroughs of New York City. There is amazing food and agriculture research and development happening at Cornell and the university is applying that knowledge in cutting-edge ways. The Center of Excellence will be leveraging Cornell’s world-class innovation to help New York state food and ag businesses bring new products, services, and systems to the marketplace and improve upon existing business offerings.
New York is ranked in the top 10 for the production of 30 commodities and has 36,000 family farms. We have nearly 500 food processors and manufacturers. There is a burgeoning winery, brewery, distillery and cidery industry. We have fantastic retailers who are focused on safe, fresh and local. We have a thriving tourism industry including farmers markets, wine and beverage trails and other attractions. We have the Governor’s Taste NY Eat-local, Drink-local marketing program. We have artisans and entrepreneurs. We have the Culinary Institute of America, aligned with the Cornell School of Hotel Administration and we have some of the best restaurants and renowned chefs in the entire world.
So, when you put all those assets together, we are the Food State and that opens the door for great economic growth through the Center of Excellence in Food and Agriculture. The stage is set for us to grab onto this economic development opportunity and maximize it to its fullest. We are committed to pushing, pulling and growing jobs in NY. By pushing, I mean we are working intensely with many startups and entrepreneurs to help them get their businesses off the ground. We also are striving to pull new companies into the state. And finally, we are working to grow existing food and agriculture businesses. Cornell’s resources and the growing New York state innovation ecosystem is key to propelling us towards these goals.
Tell us more about yourself and what brought you to this position.
I grew up on a dairy farm, so I always have had agriculture as a passion. In my government service I held several leadership roles including chairing the Senate Committee on Agriculture. I also led the Rural Resources Commission, which is focused on improving rural life across the board, and chaired the Finance Committee, which oversaw the Senate’s role in the state’s budget making process. In my former Senate district (57th) we focused on several agriculture- and food-related economic projects. In this new role, I will take my extensive background and pull it all together to grow jobs and opportunities across the state.
What should businesses expect from working with you?
We are connecting businesses with economic developers, state and federal agencies, venture capitalists, angel investors, traditional lenders, agriculture trade organizations, entrepreneurs, food-related and technology companies, Cornell assets, and all kinds of people on the front lines of job growth statewide. We assess what it is that businesses need and we work to connect them with the right resources and advice, at the right time, to help them successfully and sustainably grow their businesses.
Can you give an example of how the Center of Excellence has been helping businesses?
So far, a lot of our engagement has been with entrepreneurs and start-up companies. They have been attracted by the incredible science and technology at Cornell.
Let me give you an example. There is a startup company founded by two Cornell doctoral students by the name of Combplex that is bringing big data and bee-behavior analytics to commercial beekeeping to keep our pollinator population healthy and strong. We have a terrible problem with parasites attacking bee populations, not only in New York, but across the country and we need our bee pollinators. Not only do we have thousands of producers making honey-related products, but we also have a thriving fruit and vegetable industry that depends on having a thriving bee population. Combplex is manufacturing a a technology to eliminate harmful parasites that live on the worker bees, Combplex previously worked with eLab, Cornell’s student accelerator program, and the Hardware Accelerator at Rev: Ithaca Startup Works to build their prototype. They discovered their current business market while interviewing potential customers across the country through the National Science Foundation‘s I-Corps program. Now through the Center of Excellence, we’ve made some helpful B2B introductions, including to local honey producers, and we’ve been mentoring and guiding them on accessing multiple grants that they’ve applied for in preparation for their field trials. In serving to connect this ecosystem, the Center of Excellence is helping move this technology from the lab to the market and get it into the hands of the businesses that need it.
Hemp production is a hot topic these days. Will the Center play a role?
Yes. New York is poised to become a major producer of hemp, and we are fortunate at Cornell to have an amazing hemp research program working to determine the varieties that are most productive in New York State. Hemp can be used for anything from manufacturing clothing, to food and other products. There is a huge buzz about growing hemp and producing hemp-related products in New York, and the Center of Excellence is already working with several hemp-related businesses.