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Startups Bring Speed and Agility to Agriculture

Karsten Temme November 16, 2018

The work of startups in agriculture is rooted in profound urgency. Our food production system needs resiliency in the face of volatile climate patterns and turbulent trade headwinds. Speed is of the essence, and as startups, speed is often one of our biggest advantages. It’s true we’re often out-capitalized by ag industry incumbents: they have more money, people, equipment, and resources. However, startups attract builders: people who are willing to get their hands dirty, people with a high tolerance for risk, people willing to go where there is no road at all.

As part of the Borlaug Dialogue International Symposium at the World Food Prize in Des Moines, Iowa, I participated on a panel titled, Startups: The Next Crop of Agribusiness Leaders. A fellow panelist Thomas Laurita, CEO of NewLeaf Symbiotics, noted that we can’t just throw millions of dollars at a problem the way established agricultural companies can. And yet, agricultural startups like Pivot Bio have found these limitations to be some of our greatest advantages. Unencumbered by a legacy and an existing portfolio of products to maintain, we are able to innovate in radical ways. With a small, close-knit team, we’re able to make decisions quickly, bringing together ideas and solutions that would never see the light of day in a larger corporation with multiple layers of decision makers. We ask ourselves not what fits inside a process but rather, “What is going to change this farmer’s life?”

During the Q&A session following the panel, an audience member stepped up to the microphone and asked us to list three to five non-negotiables for a promising startup. None of us on the stage likely gave her the answers she was expecting. For example, Lucas Mann, Co-Founder and Managing Partner of Acre Venture Partners, responded that he didn’t have a list. Instead he was guided by gut feeling and was often chided by his fellow VCs for his habit of jumping after a project and, as he described, “building the airplane on the way down.” My answer was just as ambiguous, but like Lucas’s, it was true. I explained that I have always asked myself one question: If I don’t do this, how long will it be until somebody else does?

Lucas also shared that the speed and agility of ag startups is garnering substantial investment interest, even from those who specialize in mainstream technologies. Due to the limited research coming from public institutions and consolidation within the ag industry, investors are seeing innovation come from new and unlikely sources. They’re attracted to smaller companies that can deploy capital efficiently, who have a strong knowledge base, and who are poised to be suppliers – and trustworthy advisors – for growers around the world. And, as Ponsi Trivisvavet, CEO & Director of Inari, said, “It’s often a case of those who have done well, who now want to do good.”

Investors are eager to support startups that have the potential to do both, and there is ample opportunity in agriculture. There is often a learning curve, however. In particular, there is a need to expand investors’ knowledge on the mechanics of food system innovation: many come looking to make an impact, but are unused to the long timelines and capital intensive nature of farming. Lucas added that it’s sometimes a job to reframe what’s possible and also scientifically best. That mindset, when partnered with investors who understand farming is capital intensive and exists on a long scale, revolutionary advances are possible. Startups like Pivot Bio are not building luxuries, we are building the tools that will feed the next generation and the generation beyond. We are essential to the future of agriculture.

I say ‘we’ because none of these advances are possible without the incredible teams that support our work. The panel members emphasized the power of diverse teams in our companies, and we all agreed that it’s built on a trinity of expertise: first, those researchers who are at the vanguard of their scientific fields; second, ag industry veterans who’ve left the more traditional ag companies in search of something with purpose and come with decades of collective experience, knowledge of successes and failures, and insight as to how resources can be better aligned; and third, farmers who share with us their challenges and a deep, often multi-generational, knowledge of the land. Pivot Bio brings these three mindsets together in the field, and standing among a growing crop they become more than the sum of their parts.

We understand the solutions are not linear. We ask rather than assume. Our diverging perspectives mean we’re all looking in different places for solutions and the suggestions the team brings back surprise and astound the others. In some ways, ignorance is the wellspring of innovation. In 2019, farmers will have the opportunity to use Pivot Bio PROVEN, the world’s first product that can fix nitrogen for corn. The magic of teams like ours is this: When you don’t know something is impossible, it isn’t.

Pivot Bio continues to add student interns, scientists and staff, investors, and growers from across the globe who want to develop products for a future radically different from our present, where we feed the world’s population in a way that is profitable for farmers and beneficial to our environment. Come solve with us.