Company: Indigo Agriculture, founded in 2014, creates seed treatments to assist with plant health by using the plant’s microbiology. Indigo Marketplace electronically connects growers with buyers. The company’s Terraton Initiative samples soils and pays farmers for sequestered carbon. The company has 1,100 employees and seven global locations, with headquarters in Boston, Mass. Indigo has raised over $850 million in equity.
Education: Bachelor’s degree in chemical engineering, University of Tulsa; MBA, Harvard Business School; also attended the United States Air Force Academy
Favorite leadership quote: “Never give in, never give in, never, never, never…” —Winston Churchill
Favorite book: “Getting Past No” —William Ury
Describe your career path.
My career has included running several software technology and biotech companies. In 1995, I co-founded Virogen, a biotechnology company focused on diagnostics. While there, I felt scientists spent a lot of time procuring life sciences products through conventional catalog ordering. In 1997, I founded Chemdex, which sold those products online. In 1999, I created the parent company of Chemdex, called Ventro, and I served as its CEO and president until 2001. In 2002, I co-founded Anacor Pharmaceuticals, which developed small-molecule therapeutics to treat infectious and inflammatory diseases. I served as CEO for 12 years. In 2015, I co-founded Better Therapeutics, which focused on preventing and reversing chronic diseases. In late 2015, I began my role with Indigo.
What pulled your focus to agriculture?
I started in agriculture in Arkansas. We raised corn and cows, and we sold fertilizer to local farmers. In 2014, I had the opportunity to step back and say: What do I want to do next? I spent a lot of time thinking about food, how it affects my own health and my family’s health.
I realized how ridiculous the way we produce and consume food is. It’s one of the biggest problems facing us as a society and as a planet.
Indigo ranked first on CNBC’s 2019 disruptors list. How is Indigo a disruptor?
We think the system is broken. So, we think of our job as systems innovators. It sounds a little grandiose to say it that way. The fundamental problem with agriculture, from our view, is farmers are paid for a commodity. They get paid for volume, almost without regard to quality.
As long as that’s true, agriculture’s going to be suboptimal for farmers because being in a commodity business is always bad. It’s suboptimal for consumers because they’re not getting high-quality or sustainably produced food. It’s bad for the environment because farmers don’t have an economic incentive to produce anything more sustainably. To solve those problems, we have to address the whole system, which is a gigantic and terrifying undertaking.
How does Indigo plan to change the farming and food system?
We try to imagine a better system and put things in place to make it happen. That starts with Indigo Marketplace, which we hope will decommoditize agriculture. We provide microbiology to replace chemicals and fertilizers that farmers can be paid not to use. We provide an e-commerce system for transport to help farmers find trucking more economically and drivers to find loads. We do grain quality testing because that’s important if you get paid for quality. We provide agronomic advice because farmers can change their practices to earn premium.
What does a typical week involve as CEO of Indigo?
On Thursday mornings, I sit down with my team for an hour. We go through what’s coming up for the year, the quarter and the week. With regard to the next week, they’ve already made a list of all the requests for my time. Once I’ve said yes, they can schedule anything between 7 a.m. and 6 p.m. I spend my days going from one thing to another, where generally I walk in and people have prepared what we’re going to talk about, so we make a decision. I spend most of my time in Memphis and Boston. I devote at least two days a month to being in the field talking to farmers.
What is your philosophy on leadership?
We are fortunate to attract talented and high-energy people. We hired 500 people over the past year, and we had 50,000 resumes submitted for those positions. My job is setting clear goals, hiring talented people and finally getting them working together.
In its series “View From the Top,” Top Producer explores business ideas from company leaders both within the ag industry and outside of agriculture.Have an idea for someone to spotlight? Email Sara Schafer at [email protected]