Agriculture giant Nutrien buying Champaign startup Agrible for $63 million


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CHAMPAIGN — One of the world's largest agriculture companies is buying local ag-tech startup Agrible for $63 million.

Nutrien, until recently known as Crop Production Services, plans to keep Agrible and its 55 employees in Champaign, where it has office space in the University of Illinois Research Park.

"We have plans to not only expand but to also continue to build a great business in Champaign-Urbana," said Paul Miller, Agrible's chief science officer and co-founder.

The company was founded in 2012, joined the Research Park's incubator EnterpriseWorks and moved into its own space at the park in 2015.

The sale is expected to close in late July, Nutrien said.

Agrible sells software to farmers that lets them track their fields' conditions, giving suggestions on when to spray pesticides, use a tractor or watch out for hail.

It now has about 17,000 customers farming approximately 11 million acres, up from about 12,000 customers covering 7 million acres in September.

Nutrien, which is headquartered in Canada and has a retail arm based in Colorado, is the self-proclaimed "world's largest provider of crop inputs and services," selling fertilizer and other farming products.

It also recently launched a digital platform that Jeff Holzman, Nutrien's senior director of investor relations, says should complement Agrible's offerings.

"There's going to be a natural integration with our (platform)," Holzman said. Agrible's products "will change as the company evolves, but we're very excited about the type of products it already has."

He also said Nutrien plans to keep Agrible in Champaign-Urbana.

"If you just look at the talent and the workforce they already have there, and that it's also close to the heart of agriculture and the university there," he said, "it's just a good fit for the company."

Research Park director Laura Frerichs said the purchase shows the strength of the local investing community.

"This is a local success story for a tech ecosystem that included early-stage incubator assistance and investors from the local community," she said.

Over the years, Agrible received funding from local investors such as Serra Ventures and Illinois Ventures. It's also attracted funding from Midwestern firms such as Flyover Capital out of Kansas City, iSelect in St. Louis and Maumee Ventures, the venture capital arm of The Andersons in Ohio.

Frerichs compared the purchase to when Sony bought biotech firm iCyt in 2010, which provided a nice payday for its CEO, Tim Hoerr, and one of its investors, Dennis Beard.

While Sony/iCyt left the Research Park in 2014, the payday allowed Hoerr, Beard and others to form Serra Ventures, one of the lead investors in Agrible.

"This allows for further investments that pay it forward in new startups," Frerichs said.

The "startups of around 1999 and 2000 didn't have this investment community to support startups," Frerichs said. "We need success stories to beget further investment."

Beard said the venture funding community has grown, and also credited Research Park with helping foster young companies.

"This community is so much stronger than it was 15 years ago," he said.

Beard is the company's interim CEO, stepping into that role in January after then-CEO Chris Harbourt stepped down.