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What is Innovation?
The most transformative modern day company in the automobile industry is Tesla, continuously questioning what could be done and how it could be done. Tesla has launched three products in as many years and has a backlog of more than a half a million orders. Would it surprise you to know that its products have only about 20 moving parts? How about that the company hasn’t invented any of them, and that they were readily available to the common consumer?
Likewise, Dell upended the computer market by breaking down artificial barriers to consumers and simplifying a complicated purchase. Another company, Dollar Shave Club, has taken a similar approach, and thoughtfully innovated around the customer experience. All of these businesses have been handsomely rewarded but in the beginning most people thought they were simply nuts for what they were doing.
Where’s the breakthrough? The answer was that the innovation was not in the technology itself but in their models, and agriculture is riddled with opportunities to rethink the model.
In preparation for a presentation at Ag Innovation Showcase in late 2016, I received an email asking me to talk about my views on general innovation in agtech rather than specifics involved in Benson Hill. I initially balked at the idea looking to discredit my capabilities to speak to such a topic—what makes me qualified? I don’t have any technical or scientific training and last chemistry class I took was in 10th grade (and I got a D!)—But I continued to think about what innovation really is and more about opportunities that Benson Hill’s industry represents for innovators.
If nothing else, I saddled up to the idea of offering the perspective of a former venture capitalist turned entrepreneur in the midst of a love affair with agriculture. Therefore, my first attempt at defining the critical components:
- The breakthrough moment
Known more as the “a-ha” moment. While innovation may involve invention, innovation is not invention itself. This is a common misconception that applies to both agtech and the larger life science community.
- Very little is truly new, except perhaps your perspective
The biologist Francesco Redi famously stated that “every living thing comes from a living thing.” Extrapolate this to innovation and find the truth that although not much is truly new, there is newness available in juxtaposition, application and arrangement. This concept in fact served as the founding philosophy of Benson Hill. As an R&D-focused company, we set out to use computational and biological tools available in today’s technologically-advanced world to improve photosynthesis, the backbone of life.
- The “why”
This one encourages thinking about things boldly, differently and examining what we can change, the impact it will have, and how we can be a part of it.
- Innovation is really about creating and delivering value
Value can be embodied in different offerings, but innovation is embedded in value creation—that is how a business is configured and how an offering is experienced—that offers something viable and new.
If ever there was an industry where we need to consider how science- and technology-based applications are brought to an end-user, it is agriculture. The erection of expensive R&D hurdles in the 1990s essentially collapsed innovation in the industry to seed genomic discovery through a handful of players.
Today, innovation is undergoing a rapid maturation as consumers are looking to different kinds of food. Small companies that can cost-effectively shift and change their offerings are driving new boundaries. With changing barriers to entry, big ambitions and an open door to innovate products or services, companies like Agrivida, AgBiome, Indigo, Midwest Bio-Ag and Syngenta are just a handful of the names embracing the current window of opportunity.
More capital than ever before is making its way into our space with a flock of interested investors. Enabling technology costs that continue to plummet and access to R&D infrastructure—just like Benson Hill’s technology—now is an ambitious time for all.