2019 Insight Calls for 20/20 Foresight

By Scott Johnson, Vice President, Agriculture Sector Development, North Carolina Biotechnology Center

Scott Johnson, Vice President, Agriculture Sector Development, North Carolina Biotechnology Center

Encouraged by my professor/employer one summer long ago, I signed up for a newly created California process to become a licensed pest control advisor. I proudly passed the multiple exams to be fully licensed in the first wave of “professional” advisors. When I received my card a few weeks later, I was confident that I would never need the qualification. I was destined for grad school and an academic career.

Now, 45 years later, I appreciate the gentle coaching of Dr. Bacon, who saw in me more business potential than science potential.

My career has allowed me to participate in significant technology impacts while gaining some insight and, I hope, some wisdom.

I’ve led the launch of new families of chemistry, managed state-of-the-art plant breeding facilities, negotiated licenses for pioneering biotechnology traits, and provided the first non-food plant-based renewable jet fuel for the U.S. military. Nevertheless, I am astounded at the amount of activity and investment in ag tech in the last five years. And I’m concerned. I am concerned that hundreds of millions of innovation dollars in ag tech are missing the mark and will tarnish our sector from future early-stage investment.

"The most significant hurdle many ag tech innovators face is market access, and the impact of their technology on existing value chains"

In my 30 years of experience in the global ag tech innovation hub, I’ve seen and experienced both success and failure. Now I see trends that raise concerns:

• Too many founder/CEOs highly skilled in the “pitch” but lacking in-depth market knowledge and a vision of future operations in the next three to five years.

• The promise of technology and the availability of digital tech investment are leading to the creation of ag tech start-ups focused on digital equipment, cloud-based data, and artificial intelligence modeling.

However, there’s a disconnect. The recently published 2017 USDA Census of Agriculture shows that about 25 percent of American farms still do not have internet access and a larger percentage of the remaining don’t even have high-speed broadband. This is happening at a time when the average farmer’s age hit an all-time high of 57.5 years.

Also, I question the predominance of investments going into only two business models:

• Controlled-environment leafy vegetable production for high-end urban restaurants; and

• Industrial hemp-based CBD supplements and medicinal products.

I am concerned, but not pessimistic. In fact, it is just the opposite. I see more promise in technology, a higher level of talent availability, and foundational support in funding or mentoring than ever. Innovation company leaders have access to mentoring programs, accelerators, incubators, skill-development cohorts, and data that did not exist five years ago. Every week I counsel entrepreneurs, connect them to support within our North Carolina Biotechnology Center and introduce them to multiple stakeholders in our community. This exposure helps them to put substance into sustainable business plans and avoid the “pitch-and-then-prove” mentality.

Also, agriculture will benefit from the convergence of physical, biological, and digital sciences. My challenge to entrepreneurs is:

• Be diligent in understanding current systems.

• Ensure that your technology fills a need.

• Understand how farmers are managing their finances and field data—even those on tablets and smartphones.

• Learn what decision makers deem credible.

• Consider the experience of precision ag tech equipment. GPS and in-cab yield monitors were adopted rapidly and almost universally, but not many of the other precision “tools.”Why?

I often refer entrepreneurs to our cooperative extension experts or researchers at our two land grant universities, to test their innovation across our state’s various climates and soils at sites on our 18 publicly owned research farms.

The most significant hurdle many ag tech innovators face is market access and the impact of their technology on existing value chains. A 40-foot container placed in a vacant inner-city industrial lot that produces 40 acres of lettuce with minimal carbon output is an excellentstory of engineering and environmental stewardship. However, is a single category of produce enough to switch a chef from a 10-year supplier of multiple vegetables? Is there an opportunity through gene editing and other breeding tools to develop other controlled-environment vegetables that can broaden the portfolio?

Not surprisingly, a four-ounce container of CBD oil retailing for $12.95 at the local organics store attracts farmers to hemp like moths to lightbulbs. What happens now that hemp is incorporated into the farm bill, and no longer coming solely from a few pioneer states under restricted production criteria? I humbly suggest that it will not be long before we see yellow price-slashing smiley-face signs featuring house brands at $1.29 in the local Walmart.

It’ll be interesting to see how contrarians fare by investing in potential products from the 90 percent of the produced biomass other than CBD. The value of products from that source is an essential offset to CBD price decline for the hemp innovator. In both scenarios, a portfolio offsets risk.

Ultimately, I did use my PCA license. However, I traded my initial scientist dream into an MBA reality. Relinquishing the deep dive of academic knowledge in exchange for the experience of an ag tech generalist has been a wild ride on innovation trends— from integrated pest management to recombinant DNA traits, to proactively selecting gene-edited attributes rather than random mutants.

I sense, however, that the next five years will make the last 45 seem tame.

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