Brauer brings broad expertise to chairing ag-tech incubator


 By Cynthia Price

Legal News
The meaning of “incubator” has come a long way in the popular imagination from the days when it primarily called up the vision of an apparatus that warmed chicken eggs. Many now think of it as a place that nurtures new businesses or organizations.

In the case of a new project which Warner Norcross and Judd partner Kurt M. Brauer will chair, the term has come around full circle to its agricultural roots.

The Great Lakes Ag-Tech Incubator, however, will not exist in a specific place but rather consist of a set of services to help agricultural technology projects meet with success.

The services include assessment and screening of, as well as, potentially, improvement recommendations for proposed projects and products; obtaining patents and other IP assistance; determining and developing markets; and identifying opportunities for collaboration and sharing ideas.

Unlike some other ag-based incubators, the new non-profit will not be about assisting food entrepreneurs with scaling up their product (sometimes called “kitchen incubators”) or bringing such products to market. Brauer says it is focused on technology products to support agricultural entrepreneurship, mostly among farmers.

Agriculture technology might include software or hardware to promote or track sales, better farm equipment or tools, ways to monitor processes or crops — or innovative ideas no one has thought of yet. Even before opening, the incubator has worked with a company that has found a way to increase efficiency of ethanol production.

“We’ll do screening to ensure we help businesses with a good focus on our core mission. If it doesn’t fit our model, we’ll give them referrals to others like Michigan Economic Development Corporation or the Michigan State University Product Center,” Bauer says.

The incubator itself will function through “leasing” employees, initially from Ottawa County, but with plans to hire stand-alone staff in the future. They hope to keep costs low. “We can provide a lot more in the way of services by not having a physical location,” Brauer says.

Ottawa County Planner Mark Knudsen was at the forefront of promoting the project and introduced it at a press conference December 1. 

The idea had been under development for a while. Brauer comments, “I’m thrilled to see that all of the energy that’s been exhibited by this board of directors and Ottawa County and the state has culminated in this incubator coming to fruition.  It’s been bubbling for about three years and we really appreciate the high level of energy and commitment that’s allowed us to get underway and thoroughly organized.”

Brauer himself works out of the Southfield office of Warner Norcross,  though he says he “spends time” in all of the firm’s offices; he is co-chair of Warners Economic Incentives Practice. He specializes in both economic development and environmental compliance matters, also assisting with real estate law. He practices in Emergency Manager law, education, environmental and energy law, sustainability and climate, and of course economic incentives both in general and for sustainability.

His clients come from a broad spectrum, including municipalities, pharmaceutical manufacturers, non-profit environmental organizations, retail centers, food producers, and aerospace.

Before receiving his J.D., cum laude, from Wayne State University Law School (he earned his B.A. from Oakland University), Brauer taught critical thinking for the Wayne State Department of Philosophy. He has been named a Best Lawyer in America in Environmental Law from 2010 to the present, a Michigan Super Lawyer in 2014, and a Top Lawyer in Environmental Law by Dbusiness since 2011.
Brauer has just finished serving a term as chair of the Environmental Law Section Council of the State Bar, and is a charter member of the SBM Ag Law Section. He is also a member of the Michigan Chamber of Commerce (Environmental Quality Committee), the Michigan Economic Developers Association, and the East Michigan Chapter of the Air and Waste Management Association. He is on the board of directors of and helped co-found, in 2010, the Michigan Wetlands Association, which exists to “protect and restore wetland and associated ecosystems through science-based programs, education and stewardship,” according to its website.
Out in the community, Brauer puts his expertise to use by serving on the boards of such organizations as the Farmington Hills Brownfield Redevelopment Authority and the Loon Lake Association. He also helps out the Farmington Troop of the Boy Scouts of America.

Brauer’s interest in agriculture stems from both his law specialty and his upbringing in an agricultural part of the state. “Ag is in my blood. I grew up in a little town called Romeo, in Macomb County,” he says. “We’re famous for our Peach Festival” – which takes place Labor Day Weekend and has since 1913 – “but I’m not sure they actually grow peaches there anymore. If you talk to folks who live in the Southeast region, people go up there for apples. There are lots of orchards, and they grow a lot of row crops. It’s a town that has grown a little bit, but there’s still pretty significant agriculture.”

But Brauer also feels that promoting agriculture and putting his support behind such projects as the Great Lakes Ag-Tech Business Incubator stems from at least two aspects of his practice. He explains, “One, I work on a lot of ag issues as they relate to environmental matters – everything from land use to water use to cleanup of spills to air permitting. And two, the economic development component of my practice involves putting together projects that are successful private-public partnerships through capitalizing on local, state and other governmental incentives.”

The Michigan Economic Development Corporation, The Right Place, and the Michigan Department of Agriculture have all been involved in development of the incubator, and the Lakeshore Advantage, an economic development engine that assists both new and existing businesses, has played a significant role. Lakeshore Advantage’s Jennifer Owens will serve as vice-chair.

Other board members include Jim Byrum of the Michigan Agri-Business Association, Dan Lennon of Michigan Turkey Producers, Cliff Meeuwsen of Zeeland Farm Services. and a commissioner from Ottawa County as well as one from Barry County.

Originally envisioned as serving only Ottawa County, the Ag-Tech Incubator added “Great Lakes” to its name as an indication that it will eventually expand to help ag-tech businesses around the state. “The focus went from Ottawa County to statewide as we saw there was so much interest from other parts of the state in participating in the incubator,” Brauer says, adding they would “entertain” the idea of serving businesses in other states over the long term.

The State of Michigan recently gave $500,000 to help the organization get started, and private investors and other local entities have all contributed. In the long run, revenues derived from the sales of businesses successfully incubated will fund its operations. 

“There are to my knowledge no other operating ag technology incubators in the U.S.,” Brauer says. “We’re filling a niche.”