When Matt Crisp rang the bell a couple of weeks ago opening trading on the New York Stock Exchange because his St. Louis-based company, Benson Hill, had just completed an initial public offering, it ranked as a happy but unfortunately uncommon occurrence.
When was the last time an ag-tech startup nurtured – and still operating – in Flyover Country commenced an initial public offering at that icon of American capitalism?
Not sure about the answer to that question, but whenever it was, it wasn’t recently enough. And this kind of debut, by dynamic innovators in the food and ag-tech industries in the heartland, doesn’t happen nearly enough.
“It was a little bit surreal, but invigorating,” Crisp told me not long after that memorable day which saw Benson Hill begin trading under the symbol BHIL, after shares of the Special Purpose Acquisition Company that preceded it already were trading on the NYSE.
“We had a lot of trusted colleagues [at the IPO] who helped us to advance the company through rough times. And it was even more special to have literally dozens of people come to New York who were long-time supporters, advisors, board members and investors.”
The first couple of weeks have seen Benson Hill trading below its $10-a-share offering price, but Crisp is taking the long view. “Becoming a publicly traded company has the feeling of being just a stop on the journey, for those of us who believe in our plan to advance the food system,” he told me. “We think about this not as crossing a finish line but crossing a starting line.”
And it’s an ambitious race. Benson Hill, founded in 2012, aims to revolutionize agriculture by using data science, artificial intelligence and machine learning to help improve crop varieties with better accuracy, nutritional value and sustainability than traditional breeding methods.
Benson Hill already has improved soybeans in the field and has launched a breeding and commercialization program for advanced yellow peas, which have come front-and-center as a preferred ingredient for the plant-based incursion in the food industry that seeks to unseat traditional animal protein in everything from jerky to yogurt.
A number of other companies are working assiduously with yellow-pea protein. But the encouraging thing is that Benson Hill and other leaders in this derby are firmly ensconced in Flyover Country. That’s by contrast with some of the earlier pioneers, such as Hampton Creek, founded in California by Josh Tetrick, a company that hasn’t necessarily set the world on fire even after changing its name to Just.
Crisp noted that Benson Hill now has about 350 employees, with most of them working in St. Louis, and 40 open positions. He’s a huge advocate of building up the ag-tech industry in the heartland, in part because Crisp believes that our region – the traditional heart of the farming and food business in America – has the best capabilities and capacity for that.
But he remains concerned that the investment flows from venture capitalists and other investors still aren’t strong enough to finance all the innovations that are welling up in food and ag-tech in Flyover Country. The preponderance of venture capital still originates in California, New York, and Massachusetts, and for various reasons those investors still aren’t taking enough advantage of the ripe opportunities for success and growth presented by startups that don’t happen to be located where VCs’ offices are.
More successes like Benson Hill might finally open their eyes.