Patrick Walsh: Ag-tech and the entrepreneurial spirit
The following is an edited transcript of Nicole Erwin's interview with Patrick Walsh, founder of Dogpatch Labs. Click below to hear the full interview:
Nicole: From working with the top new ag-tech startups from around the world to creating internal startups to rapidly advance new ideas, Alltech has sought new ways to innovate that speaks to its entrepreneurial roots. I'm talking with Patrick Walsh, founder and managing director of Dogpatch Labs, a leading startup hub in Dublin, Ireland. Patrick, thanks for joining us.
Patrick: It's great to be here.
Nicole: Before we get too far along, can you describe the development of Dogpatch Labs?
Patrick: Sure. I sort of came from a startup background and I would see these great hubs in places like Silicon Valley. It struck me that we didn't have a big central- connecting physical space in Dublin. I thought that was a good problem to go about solving. I started walking around warehouses in Dublin and thinking what the right space would be. Eventually, we found this beautiful historic building right in the center of Dublin Docklands.
We started small; I think we just had 30 people sitting at desks in our first month. But over the last four years, that has evolved rapidly. Now, we’ve tripled in size. We have now 450 people on three floors. But it's not just us in chairs now — we do events and programs and incubators and accelerators. It's really expanded out from there.
Nicole: Does “Dogpatch” mean something?
Patrick: Well, it's a long story. It's an area in San Francisco where the idea was originally conceived. I guess the spirit — the entrepreneurial spirit of that area — was something that captured our imagination.
Nicole: Dogpatch Labs is working to deliver The Pearse Lyons Accelerator. Can you share how you and [Alltech founder] Dr. [Pearse] Lyons decided to create this incredible opportunity here?
Patrick: Dr. Lyons was such an incredible entrepreneur; he was one of the great Irish entrepreneurs, and entrepreneurs globally. For someone such as myself that runs an entrepreneurial hub, it was incredible opportunity to potentially work with Alltech when the opportunity first presented itself. I think he was an individual that was always interested in the next way of innovation for the industry. What you've seen over recent years is ag-tech is really starting to take shape. Agriculture is the least digitized sector in the world.
Patrick: It's an incredible statistic. Last year, ag-tech was the second-fastest-growing sub-sector in all of technology; the venture capital dollars are just flowing in. Increasingly, farmers are starting to adopt technology. I think this is something they — Dr. Lyons, along with [chief innovation officer at Alltech] Aidan Connolly — were starting to see and made the decision that they wanted to really be at the forefront of that, to get some insight into that, and to start to partner and work with some of the most interesting startups from around the world. That was where the idea for the accelerator originated.
Nicole: How do Dogpatch Labs and The Pearse Lyons Accelerator create realities for those who want to take advantage of the opportunity that an accelerator can provide?
Patrick: Agriculture is a tough industry to break into if you're a small startup company. You’ve got to partner with big companies or find farms. It can be a highly fragmented industry to access. Finding a route to market is a huge challenge. I think that's one of the central reasons why we decided to position this accelerator as a business development-focused accelerator — especially for slightly later-stage companies that had proven something, maybe, in their home market and that were looking to scale internationally.
One of the things is that Alltech is a very international company now — it has quite a decent presence in, I think, well over 150 countries across the world. There are many different accelerators out there for ag-tech entrepreneurs to choose from. Some of them are great if you just have an idea and you're trying to get to the first version of your product. This one is for a later-stage company who's really interested in scaling up.
I think that's where we position the accelerator; that's where the value has been extracted from the companies that went through the first year. We saw some incredible results from that. Collectively, I think we saw startups get $50 million in qualified new sales leads across 28 new markets in that first year. That really speaks to the value that some of these companies got out of it.
Nicole: I lived in Australia for a few years, and Americans were often perceived as a bit of aggressive, very forward and to-the-point, where many of us would point out individual strengths. They would kind of view it as this “tall poppy syndrome,” which meant that you would be cut down. How do entrepreneurial personalities differ in Ireland, in the U.S. and other groups that come to you?
Patrick: Well, someone said earlier today, “When you've met one entrepreneur, you've met just one entrepreneur, because every entrepreneur is different, and those personalities take very different forms.” The thing is, through this accelerator now, we've worked with entrepreneurs from, I think, over ten different countries — which is obviously a huge ag-tech hub — to China to Canada to Ireland and London. It's interesting, because people do have very different personality types.
But, at the same time, I think what we found in the groups of entrepreneurs is a lot of common ground. I think it's been great to see how those different personalities have come together to support each other and to help each other understand — how does someone from China sell to Americans, for example? I think that's one of the big value-adds of having a global accelerator with a global group of people: they help each other understand those different cultural norms as they sell into very different industry types across the world.
Nicole: What were some of the challenges of building a startup ecosystem? What elements need to be in place? Does it take a visionary to lead it? What else?
Patrick: I think there are several different elements that need to come together. I think one of the key things that we've started to understand in Ireland is you really need to have a coordinated and connected effort; you can't just have a lot of different elements operating by themselves if you really want to create a synergistic ecosystem. We were talking about this earlier today with some of the folks from Kentucky [who are interested in creating a startup environment].
What I said was that what I would much rather see Kentucky do is, rather than a hundred small things, do three initiatives that are real lightning rods to kick-start an ecosystem. One initiative is a conference that pulls together the industry and pulls together investors in ag-tech companies. Obviously, you've seen examples of that in Ireland with the Web Summit, which has moved beyond Ireland and now has European cities bidding to come to it. But you have a great conference here in ONE: The Alltech Ideas Conference that could be built and evolved upon. It's already a coming-together of industry.
I think you also need to have a global accelerator. I think we’ve started that and we continue to evolve it and, maybe, bringing other people in. I think another important part of an ecosystem — and why I was very passionate about starting Dogpatch — is I think you need a physical hub as well. A lot of the time, you just need that mental anchor point — that epicenter of an ecosystem — so that, if people get off a plane and think, "Well, where would I start?" or they get out of college and they say, "Well, where would I go?” you have this physical space, as well. Those can be real catalysts.
Then, you need all the other elements to come in to play as well: strong connections at the universities — and investors need sort of a coordinated story to think about if they're going to come to an ecosystem. You're talking about a lot of different elements coming together. Certainly, what we do in Ireland is we sit around the table with various members of the ecosystem, whether they are the big multinationals like Google — who's a big partner of us and who really supports the ecosystem — but also with government as well.
Nicole: The Pearse Lyons Incubator was also launched to focus on entrepreneurship with the hope to enable Alltech staff to rapidly advanced new ideas. How is this different than, say, going up to your boss and just pitching an idea?
Patrick: Well, that's a good question. I think this was something that Dr. Lyons was very passionate about. He said he was delighted to be supporting entrepreneurs all around the world, and that was an important part of external innovation for Alltech and bringing about innovation with our partners as well. But he also wanted to give his staff the opportunity to adopt a startup mindset — to have the opportunity to play by different rules, have some training and mentorship around advancing an idea forward in the same way that we've been doing in the accelerator. That's something that I think the people at Alltech have responded well to.
To answer your question specifically, the difference is that, often, when you pitch your boss, first of all, you might not be sure about how to best craft that proposition to create something that is an investor-ready deck. Also, your boss might not be empowered to fund that development or to enable you to go ahead and work on it. What you end up needing is some sort of a defined entrepreneurial function within a large organization — especially as it gets bigger and bigger. I think this is something that Dr. Lyons was talking about a lot in the last few years.
I know [Alltech president and CEO] Mark Lyons is very passionate about it. If you're a small company, you're entrepreneurial by your very nature. You don't need to do anything, and things just start to happen. But, as you start to get bigger, like Alltech has done in the last few years, you need a bit more of a purposeful effort — a defined function to advance new ideas. I think that was a lot of the thinking behind the incubator. We wanted to empower our staff so they can advance new ideas, because they're the people that are talking to our customers. We want to do it in a different way and we want to have a defined way of doing it.
Nicole: Can you tell me about some of the successful presentations that have been pitched?
Patrick: Well, I don't like to have favorites, because we work so closely with them all. I think what you saw this year is a great range, from beef to dairy to human nutrition to insect proteins, et cetera. I think the whole area of CRISPR is particularly interesting. I'm very struck by it. I think that is an area that will continue to have a massive impact. I think we're just at the start of that. The FDA has just said that they're not going to regulate gene-edited crops. It'll move to animals next.
You saw an example of the potential of that to save the industry, not only to save a lot of money, but also to have a massive sustainable impact. With the eggXYt presentation — the Israeli company — and then, for CRISPR, after animals, there are human implications. I'm just fascinated personally on that particular technology and how that's going to play out and disrupt the agriculture industry over the next few years.
Nicole: Dr. Lyons recently passed away, but he was incredibly progressive and constantly pushing limits. Do you feel like these accelerator projects embody the spirit of Dr. Lyons in some way?
Patrick: I think that's something that Mark said. The accelerator bears his name. I think it really was something that he was quite passionate about. There are so many stories of Dr. Lyons helping other people in a charitable way — helping other people in terms of supporting them as entrepreneurs all throughout the years. It’s great that we had the opportunity to start this when he was here. He was such an incredible inspiration to so many different people, and he is an incredible inspiration for the next generation of entrepreneurs. It’s great that we've managed to do these programs. I do think it embodies his entrepreneurial spirit.
Nicole: Patrick Walsh is the founder and managing director of Dogpatch Labs, Ireland's leading startup hub. Thank you so much.
Do you have the next big idea in ag-tech? The Pearse Lyons Accelerator is taking applications for the next cohort of innovators.
Learn more here.