Apr. 27, 2017
Recently, we announced the launch of Indigo Partners™, a program that enables Indigo and growers to test new technologies together. With Indigo Partners, we seek to discover and launch innovations that will improve farmer profitability, environmental sustainability, and consumer health worldwide.
When I returned to the agriculture industry a couple of years ago, one of the first things that I noticed is the relative lack of start-up companies. In recent years, there have been several companies created to focus on new software and data tools for farmers, but there are very few innovative new companies in the areas of seed, fertility, pest control, water use, etc. These are the core set of tools that a farmer uses to maximize his or her harvest and profitability.
The reasons for this lack of innovation were perplexing, at first. After all, agricultural innovation is enabled by the same transformations that are driving the biotechnology industry and the tech industry: dramatic reductions in the cost of DNA sequencing, dramatic increases in computing power, increased networking, and improving capabilities around machine learning and data analytics. Despite the similarities of the basic technologies, however, the pace of new company creation, investment, and resulting innovation in agriculture lags far behind its sister industries.
Over time, I’ve concluded that two factors contribute significantly to this lack of innovation:
1.Farmers are in a data-based business, but don’t have enough data to make data-based decisions
Farmers are in a business that requires data-based decision making. Between planting and harvesting a crop, growers have to make dozens of decisions: Which crop should they plant? What seed should they use? What is the right planting density? Planting depth? Farmers are used to experimenting, and they plant different seed types, different densities, and use different fertilization rates every year, but they only get to run one set of experiments per growing season. From this, a farmer can’t create enough data to make data-based decisions. So, growers are reduced to making decisions in the same way that consumers do — on the basis of brands and relationships. These decisions, unlike those based on real data, can’t be counted on to improve profitability.
2. There are limitations to traditional field trials
There’s a method for collecting data on new technologies — it’s called field trials. These are randomized, small plot experiments, often sponsored by the inventor of a new technology. While these trials can be valuable, especially for an innovative company attempting to make big decisions between product candidates, most farmers view them with suspicion. There are so many opportunities to influence the results of these trials or interpret those results in favor of the innovator. Over the last two years, I’ve asked many farmers what they think of industry sponsored field trials and most say that they don’t believe them. When I ask them what they do believe, they invariably say, “I believe data that comes from my own farm, or (maybe) from my neighbor’s farm.”
The combination of these challenges contributes to the difficulty of getting valuable new technologies to farmers, and prevents farmers from being able to differentiate valuable new technologies from snake oil.
INDIGO’S CONTRIBUTION TO THE SOLUTION
We’re addressing these challenges with Indigo Partners. Indigo Partners doesn’t rely on small plot field trials. That approach was necessary when the technology wasn’t available to account for variables like changes in soil and weather, but modern software tools and data analytics allow us to test products differently. Now, we can plant crops on real farms, in real growing conditions, and with real farmers. We can collect real data. Then, we can use today’s tools to sort through this data, separating out the relevant variables and determining the impact of the technologies we’re testing.
Indigo Partners enables Indigo to much more rapidly innovate on the technologies that we discover and develop ourselves. Soon, it will be an R&D platform through which we can test innovative technologies from other sources as well, microbial or otherwise. For the first time, farmers will have the data that they need to make profitability decisions with new technologies, and innovators will have a route by which to get their technologies in front of growers, demonstrating the value that they bring.
This will have a significant impact. It has already increased both the pace at which Indigo can bring products to market, as well as the breadth of those products across crops and stresses. In the future, Indigo Partners has the potential to accelerate innovation in agronomic products of all types, increasing investment and innovation in agriculture. In partnership with growers, ag innovators will improve the profitability, sustainability, and healthfulness of agriculture — for everyone.