Q&A With Grow-NY Mentor Donna Howell

Donna Howell

Q&A With Grow-NY Mentor Donna Howell

During the Business Development phase of the Grow-NY competition, mentors guide finalists through making a plan for their startup to thrive in the Grow-NY region. We recently sat down with one of our new mentors, Donna Howell, to learn more about her background and thoughts food and ag entrepreneurship.

As the Director of Industry Outreach for the Cornell Center for Materials Research, Donna works to build connections between university research and real-world applications by forming external partnerships. She also has experience in the agriculture industry — she was both the Director of Regional Business Development and Southern Tier Regional Director at Empire State Development. Throughout her career, she has been involved with business development in plant science, food processing, and farming operations for commodity and specialty crops. Her expertise makes her an excellent source of support and advice for Grow-NY finalists.

Question: Why do you think the Grow-NY region is a powerful place to launch a food and ag startup?

The Southern Tier, Finger Lakes, and Central New York regions have a lot to offer growers and producers because our resources — climate, topography, and access to many large markets — support a wide range of commodity and specialty goods. What sets us apart from other significant agricultural regions, though, is that we also have a rich history of innovation and defining the cutting edge of high-technology industries like computing, optics, pharmaceuticals, energy generation and storage, transportation, autonomous/unmanned systems, semiconductors, and photonics. This combination of agricultural superpower and world-class innovation in the Grow-NY region offers companies a supportive environment for new ideas that can redefine a wide range of agricultural industries.

Question: Having worked with lots of startups, what advice do you think is essential for food & ag entrepreneurs to know?

Answer: Sometimes when I am working with a new company, presentations focus too much, or only, on the technical components of a product or service. This is important! But sometimes what can get lost is why this product or service will improve a specific industry, or agriculture more generally. And, critically, why I as a stakeholder or potential consumer should invest time, money, or other resources into the idea. I would also suggest that details matter when you are describing how you plan to scale. These details will demonstrate a well-rounded understanding of the business and market sides as well as the technical side.

Question: What are you most excited about for mentoring a Grow-NY finalist this year?

Answer: I love meeting companies and hearing about what they do and the ideas they have. I am looking forward to my role as a mentor for Grow-NY because food and agriculture connect us all and are something everyone can relate to. I also understand, though, that it takes courage to share an idea and to start a business, and having the opportunity to assist in any way that I can is such an honor.

We are so thankful to Donna for being a mentor! We’ll be announcing this year’s Grow-NY finalists in the coming weeks.