Creating an ecosystem of innovation
Ejnar Knudsen and AGR Partners sponsor the Big Bang’s Food + Agriculture Sector Award, along with the Gowan Co. The $10,000 award recognizes innovations in food and agriculture. The companies also sponsor the Food + Ag Poster Competition and its three prizes totaling $5,000.
Knudsen is founder and CEO of AGR Partners, and oversees the company’s investment strategy, providing capital to cultivate long-term growth in leading food and agribusiness companies. Knudsen has deep roots in his field: from 2009 to 2012 he was portfolio manager of Passport Capital’s Agriculture Fund and earlier served as executive vice president of Western Milling, a grain and feed milling company that grew from a small California startup to over $1 billion in sales. Knudsen also spent 10 years in Rabobank’s New York office, managing a loan portfolio and venture capital investments, as well as providing corporate advisory services.
Knudsen serves on the UC Davis Institute for Innovation and Entrepreneurship’s advisory council. He is chair of the Dairy Club and a director of Opal Foods, Icicle Seafoods, Ridley (RIC.ASX), Green Plains (GPRE) and Materra Farming. He is on the board of the California Ag Leadership Foundation and on the steering committee of the Farm Foundation. Knudsen earned his B.S at Cornell University, where one of his most valuable courses was in entrepreneurship because “it brought together so many of my classes and skills to a purpose: namely, to launch an idea. I didn’t win, but I did learn a lot.”
Give us the elevator pitch for your business.
AGR Partners provides capital through non-controlling equity and subordinated debt to cultivate long-term growth in leading agribusinesses and food companies.
We use our knowledge base, relationships and industry experience to support organic growth, strategic acquisitions and ownership transitions. Over the past four years, AGR has invested more than $400 million into eight outstanding companies.
What was the most important advice you received when starting your business or launching your career?
Pursue what you are passionate about, be patient, be persistent. And work very hard.
What major opportunities and challenges do you foresee in your field/industry in the coming years?
We will see more change over the next decade versus the last decade. Distribution channels are changing, consumer preferences are evolving, people need to get healthier diets and habits or else medical costs are going to continue to soar.
Give us the elevator pitch for your sponsored prize.
UC Davis is one of the top food and ag universities in the world, with great faculty and students. What better place for industry CEOs and owners to meet the brightest minds in the sector and see what new ideas are on the horizon?
What prompted your company to support the Big Bang?
I was involved with Cornell’s entrepreneurship program and found it to be rewarding. This was driven home when a former student contacted me 20 years later to say that my encouraging him to pursue a business changed his life. He pursued the business, and it led to other great opportunities and a successful career.
Fast forward to the present. The Big Bang! provides an intersection between industry and ideas from faculty and the next generation of innovators. It’s a win-win.
And, what is most exciting to you, on a personal level, about being involved in the Big Bang!?
I love the finalist presentations and the awards ceremony. You have 100-plus people coming together, and it’s never the same because each year there is a different knowledge base and a different network of people. That’s what’s so fresh about it and why I want to be a judge and a sponsor next year—it’s because I got so much out of it this year.
The event celebrates all of the teams—62 this year—that had the courage to step forward and put their ideas and work out there. I urge them to stay engaged and keep learning. I’m very fired up about this region—for entrepreneurship, for the students and for my company. I’m proud to be part of this effort to create an ecosystem of innovation and learning that helps us, as a region, lead in what we are good at and uniquely positioned for.
We’re creating an ecosystem for innovation. Learning is so much more important than winning.
What has your involvement in the Big Bang! taught you about young innovators and their new ideas?
There is so much energy and optimism. We have encountered some fantastic business ideas and talent through the Big Bang!, and we are bridging these people and ideas back to our portfolio companies.
The confidence we help the Big Bang! participants build as innovators and entrepreneurs can lead to a Big Bang in their lives, in their communities and help create future companies they are part of.
What is your top advice for the aspiring and early-stage entrepreneurs participating in the Big Bang!?
Don’t pursue things that are consensus thoughts. Do your own thinking, do your own research. The best value can come from variant ideas. Pursue what you are passionate about, be patient, be persistent. And work very hard.