Mercaris Company CEO Kellee James Talks 'Growth' For Her Unique Start-Up

Comcast recently connected with Kellee James, Founder and CEO of Mercaris, Inc., a growing, minority-led start-up that makes efficient trading of organic and non-GMO commodities possible via market data service exchanges and trading platforms. Comcast Ventures’ Catalyst Fund invested in Mercaris in October, making it the seventh company in its rapidly growing portfolio of companies led by amazing entrepreneurs of color. Below, James talks about where Mercaris is today and where her unique concept hopes to go in the coming months and years.


Q:  What is Mercaris?

A: Mercaris is a market data service, and on-line trading platform for organic, non-GMO and other certified agricultural commodities.  Our lofty mission is to communicate data on commodities that have environmentally beneficial attributes.  We make it possible for everyone in the supply chain, from farmers to food manufacturers, to track prices, volumes and other statistics for organic corn, or non-GMO soybeans.  We also allow buyers and sellers of raw commodities to meet and trade online.

Q:  How did the concept for Mercaris develop?

A:  I think it is important to know the difference in price between, say, organic wheat which ensures it was grown without chemical pesticides, fertilizers, or genetically modified seeds, and conventionally grown wheat.  It's important that everyone in the supply chain: from farmers to consumers, have access to that information.  For 10 years, I've worked at the intersection of environmental performance and markets and so I decided to take on the challenge of getting this information out there.  My 5 years at the Chicago Climate Exchange, which was the first exchange for carbon credits and other environmental derivatives and my time advising the Obama administration on environmental markets as a White House Fellow prepared me for that. 

Q:  How has the market responded to your product?

A:  We went from concept to launch in about 10 months and we've gotten a lot of positive feedback.  Before Mercaris, there was virtually no way to track granular market data like regional variations in organic grain prices, or forward prices in a way that was rigorous, consistent and available to anyone.  People seem to appreciate what we're doing.  Our customers include industry leaders like Whole Foods Market, Michael Foods, Perdue Farms, and others.

Q:  How has working with the Catalyst Fund made a difference for your start-up?

A:  The Catalyst Fund is eager and willing to work with Founders that have a somewhat unusual business and has been a real partner for us at the critical seed stage.  The Fund is always accessible, and has helped me with a wide range of things; whether it is vetting our financial model, introducing us to other investors, helping us prepare for our [Series] A round. I work most closely with William Crowder and Kathleen Utecht who are sharp, dedicated individuals.

Q:  As a minority-led start-up what are some of the biggest challenges and opportunities you face?

A:  Every challenge is an opportunity, right?  I've worked for a long time in companies and industries where I'm almost always the only woman of color in the room.  I'd love for that to change and for it to be just 'business as usual' for women and minorities to found tech start-ups, or agricultural start-ups.  I think it will happen, but the pace of change isn't fast enough for me. 

Q:  What is on the horizon for Mercaris?

A:  The coming year will be an important one for us.  Having proven out our model on a small scale, we'll be in growth mode.  And, we'll be putting together our A round and looking for a lead investor that that has experience in data as a service and/or the agriculture & food sectors.  We'll be rolling out market data on additional crops and scaling up our trading platform with regularly scheduled auctions. Keep an eye out for us, we're doing big things in agriculture!