Cara Wells recently earned one of the top prizes from the annual Grow-NY competition.
Cara Wells grew up around horses, and naturally pursued degrees in animal science at Texas Tech University, earning both her bachelor's degree and doctorate from the College of Agricultural Sciences & Natural Resources.
Spending all that time around horses not only helped her while she was in school but has been a big influence in her becoming a successful entrepreneur since.
“I've been riding horses my entire life, and there is an expression that we are all familiar with that says, ‘If you haven't fallen off a horse, then you probably haven't been riding long enough,'” Wells said. “I think this can translate into entrepreneurship as well.”
Wells fell off that horse when it came to her first entrepreneurship venture. Despite good intentions, she said, her team of first-time collaborators failed to function as a team, and the venture failed. She called it one of the most painful experiences of her life.
But from that pain and disappointment, success has risen. After dusting herself off and getting right back on the horse, Wells found the right path and the perseverance to bring about a product that could have a huge impact on animal reproductive health. At least that's what the judges from a recent competition think.
Wells, along with Texas Tech School of Law graduates Tracy Druce and Greg Novak, founded EmGenisys. Based in Houston, EmGenisys is a state-of-the-art embryo health assessment platform that provides veterinarians and animal health researchers the most comprehensive embryo evaluation system for livestock, improving pregnancy outcomes of embryo transfer and in vitro fertilization (IVF).
Recently, EmGenisys was one of eight winners named at Grow-NY, an annual food innovation and agriculture technology business competition sponsored by Empire State Development and Cornell University's Center for Regional Economic Advancement. The competition focuses on enhancing the emerging food, beverage and agriculture innovation cluster in Central New York, the Finger Lakes and Southern Tier. EmGenisys was awarded $250,000 from the competition, which attracts startups and entrepreneurs from around the globe to compete in a two-day pitch competition and symposium.
“Winning this prize just validates the potential of EmGenisys,” said Wells, who serves as the company's CEO. “We will use this to complete the development of our user interface so we can launch the technology soon. We can engage in new research which we did not have the funds to do before. We are in the process of assessing our funding strategy, and this award raises the position of our capital and will continue to open more doors for us in the near future.”
It's also validation for the power of persistence.
Trials and tribulations
Upon earning her doctorate from Texas Tech in 2017 in reproductive physiology, Wells wasn't quite sure how she wanted to proceed. She knew she had the skills to succeed, but didn't know exactly where she wanted to apply them.
Then, a chance meeting changed everything. On a flight, Wells ended up sitting next to Kimberly Gramm, associate vice president for Innovation & Entrepreneurship in the Texas Tech Office of Research & Innovation and chief operating officer for the Innovation Hub at Research Park. With Gramm's the encouragement, Wells looked into entrepreneurship and the Innovation Hub as her path to success.
But her first forays into entrepreneurship did not go well, leading to the horse analogy.
“Back then, we had a team of four first-time entrepreneurs, and despite our good intentions, we made a lot of classic mistakes and ultimately could not function as a team to make the company work,” Wells said.
That failure, Wells said, led her to found EmGenisys and pick up where she left off. Wells took the idea for EmGenisys and applied for the annual Accelerator program at the Innovation Hub, which helps faculty, students and other entrepreneurs launch startup companies or discover licensing opportunities through access to funding support, grants, workspace and mentoring over the course of a year.
Wells and EmGenisys were accepted into the program in 2019. Even then, though, finding success came at a snail's pace, if at all. She said the product's accuracy was there, but that it failed to perform at scale in a commercial lab. That led to struggles in getting the intellectual property license, and she was stuck with a company with no product in the pipeline for several months.
With the help of her Accelerator mentors, however, she found a path.
“After spending a ton of effort and energy fighting something that was never going to work, they encouraged me to pivot,” Wells said. “At first, I resisted; I had just finished a doctorate and didn't really want to start all over again. My mentors asked me whether I loved the problem I was solving or my solution. I challenged myself to solve the problem again, with a different solution, and I did.”
Yet, more challenges awaited. Wells and EmGenisys graduated from the Accelerator program in the spring of 2020, right at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic when money was tight for everyone and venture capital was becoming scarce. At the same time, she said, the pandemic demonstrated the necessity for agriculture, which was all the opening she needed to find a path to success for EmGenisys.
“Animal protein such as meat, milk and eggs was either not in stock at the grocery store or subjected to a limit,” Wells said. “I felt like, for the first time in my career, people realized how essential agricultural workers are and how important our products are. It was then that I saw the silver lining – very few institutions were better positioned to help the agricultural sector than Texas Tech.
“Improving profit margins of animal production was more critical than ever, and my company can help do that. I was inspired by this mission and found security in the fact I had resources through Texas Tech and the Innovation Hub to help me accomplish this mission.”
Taking the next step
After graduating from the Accelerator program in 2020, Wells' company was still in the ideation stage and needed testing. To do so she called Shamrock veterinarian Russell Killingsworth, a local embryo transfer practitioner, to help test and collect data. Wells brought Killingsworth onto the team as a co-founder, and together they tested more than 2,000 embryos and used that pregnancy data to develop machine-learning algorithms, which became the basis for the software used by EmGenisys.
Needing to push development further, Wells applied for the Grow-NY competition in 2020 but was not chosen. Earlier this year, while attending the Animal Ag Tech Innovation Summit, Wells met Grow-NY director Brian Bauer and decided to apply again. EmGenisys had made significant strides over the past year and had developed a functional software prototype, and this time the company was accepted.
Wells, Killingsworth and the rest of the EmGenisys team spent several months leading up to the competition meeting with veterinarians, dairy producers, Cornell researchers and engineers to make connections in the Grow-NY region. Gramm also lent her assistance in helping with the actual pitch used by the company in the competition. EmGenisys was named one of 20 finalists out of 320 applicants and was assigned a mentor, who helped them develop a pitch deck that included an economic development plan for the Grow-NY region.
“It was incredible,” Wells said. “New York has a very progressive dairy industry, and we have made so many new connections to develop, test and launch our product.”
Judging for the competition was based on five criteria:
- The viability of commercialization and business model generation;
- Demonstration of cohesion, completeness and readiness as well as diversity and inclusion, among the founders, employees and advisors;
- Provision of significant value for customers for which they are willing to pay;
- Pushing the state-of-the-art in food and agriculture and contributing to making Upstate New York a global leader in agriculture and food innovation; and
- Potential for creation of high-quality jobs in the Grow-NY region and relevance to the existing food and agriculture ecosystem.
Grow-NY was so impressed that EmGenisys was named one of the four $250,000 winners at the competition last month. Those connections made during the competition will pay off, as accepting the award requires EmGenisys to commit to operate in the Central New York, Finger Lakes or Southern Tier regions for at least one year while providing Grow-NY with a small equity investment.
“Ag-Tech innovations are a strength at Texas Tech, it's a great accomplishment to have one of our doctoral graduates commercializing a technology and launching an ag-tech startup,” Gramm said. “Dr. Wells is special in that she's developed not only the deep research capabilities but also is on her way to becoming a successful founder. This award acknowledges both her research and her ability to solve a pain point in the market. I look forward to seeing this high-impact team successfully validate and improve the technology while continuing to develop new intellectual property. This funding is critical at the right time to fuel their success.”
Wells said Grow-NY commended them on their ability to take a complex problem and develop a solution that was so clear and easy to understand. For that, Wells credits Gramm and Grow-NY mentor Xanthe Matychak.
“I am most proud that Grow-NY was able to see our vision,” Wells said. “As we said in our pitch, we create 360 degrees of impact for the region. We don't just create jobs, but we lead innovation. Launching the product for use in dairy improves the profit margins of the people who already live and work in the region, to keep wealth locally. Our ability to create more protein from fewer animals helps improve the state of food security worldwide and reduce the carbon footprint of animal production.
The win in the Grow-NY competition is the fourth pitch competition victory for EmGenisys in the last 12 months, Wells said. Now, with $268,000 in funding in hand, EmGenisys moves to the next stage – launching the technology while also continuing its research efforts to constantly improve the product.
“We are in the process of coordinating some studies to evaluate different applications for our embryo evaluation software, including embryo sex, human embryo evaluation, equine embryo evaluation and mammalian embryo development in space,” Wells said.
Wells credited the education she received in CASNR at Texas Tech and the connections she made while in the Center for the Integration of STEM Education & Research (CISER) with developing her ability to solve complex problems in animal reproduction and understand the economic implications involved in those solutions.
“The Innovation Hub taught me how to build a business, discover product market fit and scale a product,” Wells said. “It also has given me a peer network to lean on when entrepreneurship feels daunting and lonely. I have met some of my closest friends at the Hub, and I am fortunate to have a network of people who understand the challenges entrepreneurs face.”