by Mark Carter
A good piece of steak. Lawson Hembree is simply trying to make sure you get one. He’s the co-founder and CEO of Innovate Arkansas client firm and John Brown University startup Agricultural Food Systems. AFS is developing a handheld device called the TenderID that measures the tenderness of raw beef carcasses right on the line in processing plants. (See also: Lawson Hembree’s 5 Tips for Startup Success) What might seem a public service to some is just another day’s work, and a labor of love, for Hembree, who calls his product “accurate, reliable and minimally invasive.” “In preliminary testing, the TenderID was 100 percent accurate in predicting tenderness when compared with four other industry and research tests commonly used for assessing tenderness,” he said. “We plan on doing more testing with the next prototype with a potential customer, the USDA or a third-party researcher.” How does the TenderID work, exactly? It’s simple, really. Hembree explained: “It works by inserting three blunt blades into a raw beef carcass, measuring the force used to probe the meat and outputting the data to the plant’s quality assurance programs. This data allows processors to assign an objective tenderness rating to the beef and potentially create branded beef products.” Hembree said his initial target market consists of the four largest beef processors: Tyson, Cargill, JBS Swift and National Beef, together representing 83 percent of the U.S. beef market and operating a collective 24 U.S. plants in addition to more across the globe. For now, AFS has no plans to target other markets such as restaurants, grocery stores or butcher shops. Hembree won’t be stopping by your back deck to gauge the meat on your grill. At least not anytime soon. “However, as we move forward, there is a possibility of minimizing the technology in such a way that it could be viable in those settings,” Hembree said. That technology was licensed by the University of Arkansas to AFS after Hembree and fellow business students at JBU “discovered” it as part of a senior capstone class project. While researching technologies available for licensing from universities across the country, Hembree was attracted to the UA meat tenderization technology, citing his family background raising cattle and a “personal love for a good piece of steak.” “We contacted the U of A, and the rest is history,” Hembree said. That history includes a string of wins in the Donald W. Reynolds Arkansas and Tri-State Governor’s Cup business plan competitions. Currently, AFS is participating in the ARK Challenge, a business accelerator program/boot camp for tech-based startups serving the retail, transportation/logistics and food-processing industries. It was one of just 15 startups chosen from a pool of 86 international applicants for the ARK’s inaugural run. Hembree said participation has allowed AFS to refine its business plan. “We are in the process of developing our next prototype and exploring opportunities to conduct further testing to provide further evidence for the viability of the TenderID,” he said. “In addition, we have continued to foster relationships with future customers.” Hembree likes what he sees in the state’s emerging entrepreneurial culture. An Arkansas native, he always looked up to the state’s trio of entrepreneurial pioneers: Sam Walton, John Tyson and J.B. Hunt. But his proximity in Siloam Springs to the activity generated in recent years out of the Fayetteville-Bentonville corridor has him convinced the surface has merely been scratched. The steak, you might say, is just beginning to sizzle. “I’ve gotten to watch as a newer generation of innovators has taken shape and become a community that shares knowledge and resources while pushing each other to succeed,” Hembree said. “In fact, that’s been one of the most striking parts of my journey with AFS – the large number of individuals willing to help at little or no cost. The ARK is the fruit of this burgeoning environment and should be a powerful tool for attracting and equipping more high-performing entrepreneurs.” And Hembree is optimistic that fruit can lead to steak. Tender ones.