Judges Selected for AgSharks Pitch Competition

Western Growers and S2G Ventures have announced the judges for the 2022 AgSharks Competition, a unique event where startup companies pitch their innovations in front of a live audience of the world’s largest specialty crop producers to win a $250,000 minimum investment.

Three startups will be selected to pitch their inventions to these judges in front of an audience of more than 300 fresh produce farmers and industry leaders during the WG Annual Meeting in Las Vegas on Nov. 2-5, 2022. The competition will be hosted by Stuart Woolf, President and CEO of Woolf Farming & Processing.

In addition to potential investment capital, the winner(s) will receive international recognition, mentoring from S2G and WG, potential access to farm acreage to pilot their technologies and access to WG’s expansive network of leading fresh produce companies.

The judges are:

Neill Callis

Neill Callis is the General manager of Turlock Fruit Company, a family-owned and operated fresh produce grower / shipper / packer founded in 1918 by James “Cantaloupe” Smith. Neill joined the company in 2013 following a 17-year career as a project manager and systems engineer in the aerospace industry. As a member of the family management team, he now works alongside the 2nd (Don), 3rd (Steve), and 4th (Alec) generations of the Smith family operating the business of farming honeydews, cantaloupes, mixed melons, asparagus, cherries, tomatoes, and almonds in Merced and Fresno counties.

Neill has served on the California Cantaloupe Advisory Board since 2015, participated in the Western Growers Future Volunteer Leaders program (Class III), and served as an industry mentor to Cohorts II/III of the Thrive AgTech Accelerator. In the Turlock community, he serves as a Trustee of the Legacy Health Endowment, serves on the boards of the Turlock Community Theatre, Prodigal Sons & Daughters, and Little Lights Preschool, and is also a member of the James Irvine Foundation New Leadership Network’s 3rd cohort. Neill graduated with a. B.A. in Political Science from Elon College, and holds a Graduate Certificate in Complex Space Systems from the Stevens Institute of Technology.

Neill joined the Western Growers Board of Directors in 2019, following in the footsteps of Turlock Fruit Company owners Steve Smith and Don Smith. He is currently serving as Treasurer of the Board. He is married to Steve’s daughter Hilary, and they have two young children, Daniel and Elin.

Audre Kapacinskas

Audre Kapacinskas is a Principal at S2G Ventures where she leads Corporate Development efforts across our focus sectors: food & agriculture, oceans & seafood, energy, and real assets. Audre actively engages corporate, investor, nonprofit and government stakeholders to identify opportunities to accelerate growth and impact of S2G companies. By building relationships with a diverse ecosystem of stakeholders, Audre seeks to apply advanced and emerging technologies at scale to address today’s most pressing challenges in order to realize a more humane and healthy planet.

Over the last 10+ years, Audre has worked at the intersection of technology, strategy, finance and operations to incubate new ideas and drive growth. Prior to S2G, Audre was a Director of Sales and Corporate Strategy at Uptake, a predictive analytics start-up delivering artificial intelligence and IoT solutions to multiple Industrial sectors. Previously, Audre worked for Stax, a boutique strategy consulting firm that works closely with private equity firms and corporate clients on growth acceleration, value assessments and investment due diligence.

Audre lives with her family in Chicago where you can find her hunting for the city’s best sourdough, planning an outdoor adventure or bouncing crazy ideas around with entrepreneurs and creatives. Audre is Co-Founder of Fifth Star Funds, a venture philanthropy focused on investing in underrepresented tech founders in Chicago. Audre holds an Honours BA from the University of Toronto (Economics, International Relations), an MA from Vilnius University and was a Fulbright Scholar.

Aaron Rudberg

Aaron Rudberg is the COO and Managing Director at S2G Ventures. He has worked in the investment business his entire professional career, and brings experience as an entrepreneur and institutional investor. Prior to joining S2G, Aaron spent 10 years at Baird Capital where he was a Partner and Managing Director overseeing the global strategy, investor relations, marketing and business development for the $3.5 billion private equity and venture capital business. Aaron previously spent time at a private equity fund-of-funds and a venture capital firm. Early in Aaron’s career, he was an entrepreneur building a venture-backed software company that was acquired. Aaron received a BA from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and an MBA from the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University. Aaron is a member of the board of The Civic Federation, Adler Planetarium, and was named an Emerging Leader by the Chicago Council of Global Affairs in 2014.

Kristen Smith Eschaya

Kristen Smith Eshaya is the President of Yuma, Ariz.-based JV Smith Cos. JV Smith Cos. began with the formation of Skyview Cooling Company in 1970 by John Smith, Smith Eshaya’s grandfather and Vic Smith’s father.

Smith Eshaya graduated as the valedictorian of her class at Yuma High School in 2003, and then went on to graduate from Colorado College with a Bachelor of Arts in economics and, later, from Northern Arizona University with a Master of Education in human relations. She lived in Texas and California, working in finance and development for the arts, before moving back home to join the family business.

She also has been involved with industry trade associations, having formerly served on the Center for Growing Talent by Produce Marketing Association board of directors, as well as the PMA diversity and inclusion task force.

Smith Eshaya is currently in the Western Growers Future Volunteer Leaders Program, in addition to serving on the Children’s Museum of Yuma County board of directors. Along with her husband, Emil, Smith Eshaya resides in Yuma with their two children.

AgSharks was first held in 2017, and through the competition, past winners Hazel Technologies and Burro have since brought their products from development to market. Hazel Technologies has raised over $87.8 million in funding over six rounds and is advancing the industry with sachets that extend the shelf life of fresh produce by as much as three times. Burro raised a $10.9 million Series A round in September 2021 led by S2G Ventures and Toyota Ventures and continues to help solve farmers’ labor woes with the expansion of its fleet of autonomous robots to farms across the west.

About Western Growers:

Founded in 1926, Western Growers represents local and regional family farmers growing fresh produce in California, Arizona, Colorado and New Mexico. Western Growers’ members and their workers provide over half the nation’s fresh fruits, vegetables and tree nuts, including half of America’s fresh organic produce. Connect and learn more about Western Growers on Twitter and Facebook.

About S2G Ventures:

S2G Ventures, the direct investment team of Builders Vision, partners with entrepreneurs who are working on solutions to some of the world’s greatest challenges across the food, agriculture, oceans, and clean energy markets. We provide capital, mentorship and value-added resources to companies pursuing innovative market-based solutions that generate positive social, environmental and financial returns. We provide our partners with flexible capital solutions that can range from seed and venture funding through growth equity to debt and infrastructure financing. For more information about S2G, visit s2gventures.com, tune-in to our podcast, or connect with us on LinkedIn.

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