May. 20, 2019
A four-year-old start-up called Indigo Ag is the No. 1 company on the 2019 CNBC Disruptor 50 list. Indigo Ag is out to feed the world and help farmers make a good living without harming the planet. And one secret to its recent growth is hidden in the stars. Using satellite imaging and geospatial intelligence, it's created a living map of the world's food supply.
With 920 employees, Indigo Ag is best known for making non-GMO seed treatments that help farmers maximize their yield on row crops, including soybeans, rice, wheat, corn and cotton. The treatments consist of naturally occurring microbes, like plant-friendly bacteria and fungi. Farmers apply them to their seeds as a spray or powder coating before planting.
The start-up plans to develop microbes to aid the growth of other crops, including coffee and high value nuts, fruits and vegetables. But for the time being, the company is focused on grains.
Indigo Ag's newer seed coatings aim for more than yield improvements - they encourage desirable traits in plants, like soybeans that yield more oil, or grains that are more palatable to certain livestock, for example. They also reduce farmers' needs for synthetic fertilizers and pesticides, says Indigo Ag CEO David Perry.
Traditional chemical inputs can cause water pollution, harm wildlife, have damaging side effects on soil and hurt the health of people who work with or ingest them. In one famous case, a team of scientists led by Louisiana State University and the Louisiana Universities Marine Consortium found a New Jersey-size "dead zone" in the Gulf of Mexico, caused largely by the runoff of fertilizers and other waste from farms around the Mississippi River.
According to Ben Riensche, a sixth-generation farmer in Iowa who grows corn and soybeans on 18,000 acres, Indigo Ag's seed coatings improve crop yields, typically by more than 10%. He has been working with the company for three years as a customer and a research partner. Indigo Ag tests and runs control groups in four of his fields when they're developing new seed treatments.
Riensche says Indigo Ag's approach is appealing to farmers who want help growing through rough conditions like drought or when a disease or pest infestation is threatening to encroach. But farmers also want to improve their bottom line.
"Let's face it, crops face stress every year. No two years are alike. Hot, cold, wet, dry, early or late - I'll tell you what has to be the fertilizer strategy. But if you can help my plants overcome stress in the field, and help me produce the same yield with less inputs, or produce higher-value crops using something from the biome? It's better for my business and better from an environmental standpoint."
In 2017 Indigo Ag had notched a few hundred customers. By 2018 that number had ballooned to 5,000 food producers growing food on 1 million acres. The company expects to see 25,000 growers using its technology to produce food on 4 million acres by the end of this year.
The company is on target to surpass annual revenue of $1 billion in 2019, Perry says, partly owing to its international expansion. It now operates outside the U.S., in Argentina, Brazil and Australia, along with a joint venture with Mahyco Grow in India.