Incubator Lab for Meals and Ag Tech Startups Opens in Woodland

A century ago, the city of Woodland — surrounded by farmland,
connected to the Southern Pacific Railroad and just a stop away
from what was then the University of California’s experimental
farm — was a hub for the cutting-edge agricultural technology of
its day. Now, a startup incubator aims to bring a new generation
of food and agricultural technology innovators to the Yolo County
seat.  

[email protected] is a
4,800-square-foot, $1.5 million facility inside Woodland
Corporate Center that includes coworking space, a wet lab with 28
workstations, and a food lab approved as a commercial kitchen by
the Yolo County Department of Health. Run by AgStart, a nonprofit
organization that supports food and ag tech entrepreneurs, the
facility launched in late May with an inaugural class of startups
developing food, pharmaceutical and agricultural products, which
pay membership fees to access the space. At the facility’s launch
event May 27, AgStart staff, sponsors and startups expressed
their enthusiasm for its future. 

[email protected] occupies a 4,800-square-foot suite in Woodland
Corporate Center. (Photo by Dragon Roll Media, courtesy of
[email protected])

“This lab reduces the barriers so that you can just focus on your
R&D,” says Fatma Kaplan, the founder and CEO of Pheronym, one of [email protected]’s
first participants (and a former Comstock’s
Startup of the Month
). “We’ve been looking for this facility,
actually, for the past three years, and we’re so happy that we
can actually move in.” She says that the shared wet lab is
crucial for startups like her own, which is developing
pheromone-based biopesticides, because lab equipment and
infrastructure can be prohibitively expensive for early-stage
companies. 

The [email protected] wet lab is stocked with donated equipment from
Bayer and Syngenta, including hoods, centrifuges, autoclaves and
orbital shakers. It’s called the Yocha Dehe Lab after one of the
project’s sponsors, the Yocha Dehe Wintun Nation. The Capay
Valley-based tribe, which runs Cache Creek Casino and the olive
oil and wine brand Séka Hills, supported the project through its
Doyuti T’uhkama
partnership, which invests up to $24 million per year from gaming
revenue in initiatives that are “improving the lives of Native
people and citizens of California.” “We know that the innovations
created here will not only help the land take care of us, but
will also help us take care of the lands,” said Ben Deci, public
information officer for the tribe, at the opening event.

The Raley’s Food Lab at [email protected] is a certified food facility.
(Photo by Dragon Roll Media, courtesy of [email protected])

The food lab is named after another sponsor, the West
Sacramento-based supermarket chain Raley’s. Wedged into a corner
office-sized space in the corporate suite, Raley’s Food Lab is a
commercial food facility in miniature, with all the stainless
steel appliances and safety equipment necessary to test recipes
or produce food that can be legally sold to retailers. Chelsea
Minor, Raley’s director of public affairs, says that she hopes
products developed in the kitchen will eventually join the local
products sold at Raley’s stores. Raley’s subject matter experts
will be on hand to guide the incubator participants over hurdles
like packaging, marketing, food safety and legal issues. 

Minor predicts that the incubator will benefit the city and
region as a whole. “(Woodland) used to be a manufacturing
powerhouse, right? That has subsided significantly,” Minor says.
“I’m really inspired and hopeful that this will not only revamp
that, but really kind of revitalize that.” 

Powerhouse or no, Woodland still offers many draws for food and
ag tech companies. The city is home to more than 180 food and
agriculture-related businesses, according to AgStart, and Yolo
County has over 250,000 acres of prime farmland. Though the rice
mills, sugar beet refinery and train station are gone, UC Davis
and its top-ranked College of Agricultural and Environmental
Sciences are just a 15-minute drive away. 

UC Davis has its own startup programs, including the Venture Catalyst
START program
, and its research labs are often the birthplace
of ideas that lead to startups, but the university lacks a
dedicated incubator lab space. This may serve to funnel
Davis-born startups to [email protected] A few of the current class of
startups have already taken this route, including Astrid Pharma, which acquired the
foundational intellectual property rights from UC Davis for its
capsid-based platform for mucosal drug delivery in 2017.

Chelsea Minor, director of public affairs at Raley’s, speaks at
the launch event for [email protected] May 27. (Photo by Jennifer
Fergesen)

The incubator also has the potential to attract food and ag tech
entrepreneurs from further afield. One of the largest delegations
in attendance at the launch event represented the Singaporean
startup TurtleTree Labs,
which is enrolled in the UC Davis START program and closed its
pre-A funding round at $6.2 million last December. The company
has developed technology to produce cell-cultured milk, including
human breast milk, and announced in May (before the lab opened)
that it would establish [email protected] as its R&D
headquarters. 

But AgStart may need to develop further facilities to attract
other startups and help current participants grow out of the
program. Though the lab is well-outfitted to develop food
products, Kaplan says that ag tech companies like her own need
greenhouse space in addition to a wet lab. “Because we are
agriculture, we are so entwined with the plants,” she says. “When
we want to do greenhouse trials, where are we going to go?” She
also anticipates needing an individual lab, not a bench in a
shared space, within two years.  

At the May 27 launch, though, all were optimistic about the
potential of [email protected] “I’m so much a cheerleader for
scientists,” said California Department of Food and Agriculture
Secretary Karen Ross, who took a break from her Sacramento office
to attend the event. “To really think about all that it takes to
bring food to the table, and to bring healthy food to young
people so that they have healthy lives and make the most of their
lives to achieve their potential … there’s nothing more
important.”

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