Why SAS wants to work with some of the Triangle’s promising agtech startups

·3 min read

Data analytics giant SAS Institute wants a chance to work with more of the Triangle’s promising agriculture technology startups.

The Cary-based company said Wednesday it is partnering with the Durham venture capital firm Pappas Capital to identify young companies that are in need of its analytics expertise. Pappas, one of the region’s oldest venture firms, primarily invests in life sciences and agricultural companies.

Agriculture has long been a focus of SAS. When the company was formed in the 1970s, its first projects involved crunching numbers on crops and livestock for the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

It now sees a huge opportunity to extend that expertise to companies in the Triangle that cannot yet afford to build an analytics team. Think of it as SAS becoming the chief data officer for a startup that doesn’t have one, said John Gottula, director of crop science at SAS.

“If data science is not core to their business, (startups) may not make data science a higher priority,” Gottula said. “And if startup companies never explore what data science can do for them, then it can’t be used to develop new products or services.”

There are already more than 100 agtech companies in the Triangle — and SAS anticipates the region will continue to see strong growth in the industry here, said Robin Costello, who works in strategic partnerships at SAS.

Costello, who previously worked for the Council for Entrepreneurial Development, said SAS hopes to not only get early exposure to future clients in the partnership but also give the region a competitive advantage.

There’s a “true interest in growing companies successfully in the region” and “attracting companies from outside of the state to (move) here,” she said.

Pro bono work

One startup already working with SAS is the Pappas Capital portfolio company Boragen, a Research Triangle Park-based startup that is developing a next-generation fungicide.

Boragen is using SAS’ artificial intelligence capabilities to analyze which of its potential lab compounds will have the best success in the field. The collaboration allows Boragen to be more efficient in selecting what products to invest its resources in.

SAS is offering all of that to Boragen pro bono, Costello said, though that might not be the case for all startups it works with.

It is willing to do that, she said, because SAS believes it will benefit down the line.

“These companies are early. They don’t necessarily have a lot of a lot of money,” Costello said. “But if you think about it, we’re getting really good experience from working with these companies as well.”

SAS, for example, could potentially find new uses for its own technology in the agriculture space or fine-tune its own artificial intelligence offerings.

“And if we do a good job, we can have an effect on that entrepreneurial company,” she said. They could grow into a much larger customer in the future or if “potentially they’re acquired at some point, or they merge with a big corporate, perhaps that’s going to give us visibility into those companies as well.”

This story was produced with financial support from a coalition of partners led by Innovate Raleigh as part of an independent journalism fellowship program. The N&O maintains full editorial control of the work. Learn more; go to bit.ly/newsinnovate

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