Plowing as it has through the pandemic, Missouri agtech startup Benson Hill has managed to till the soil for what looks to be a bountiful future. Over a rapid-fire series of months, the company founded in 2012 has been valued at $2 billion, completed a new $52 million headquarters in St. Louis, announced another physical expansion, and doubled its planted acreage under contract.
So, who are these people? They are, according to CEO Matt Crisp, a “crop improvement company,” and currently the engineers of souped-up soybean seeds Benson Hill’s new headquarters in St. Louis. These seeds can deliver crops that are tastier, more nutritious, better digested and more sustainably grown, says Crisp.
“We’re a technology company that is focused on tapping into the natural genetic diversity of plants to make a seed that’s just better from the beginning,” he explains. “Data science is a core component that underpins what we do. How can we do prediction and use machine learning and artificial intelligence to understand how we might breed better crops? We’re tapping into that genetic diversity to create high value products for a diverse set of end markets.”
Benson Hill’s operations formerly were split between St. Louis, Missouri, and North Carolina’s Research Triangle Park. When the company decided to consolidate, those two locations were the only options considered. The decision fell in favor of the EDGE@BRDG site at St. Louis’s Danforth Center, known as the world’s largest independent plant science research center. Benson Hill’s staff has more than tripled in the past three years. It turns out to have been a very good decision.
“St. Louis has the highest concentration of plant science PhDs in the world,” says Crisp. “So, there’s a plethora of good talent here. The second component is you’ve got to have the infrastructure. And here, we have the Danforth Center, with over 50,000, sq. ft. of greenhouse space, core laboratories and other functions that enabled us really early in our life cycle to punch above our weight. And then the third — and really foundational piece of all this — is money. You’ve got to have money.”
Which is something Benson Hill found in abundance in St. Louis, as witnessed by its recent double-unicorn valuation. But can the Midwest compete with the coasts for venture capital?
“For investors,” says Crisp, “being in the heartland really mattered. As a company like ours that has matured, being in close proximity to our grower partners is really meaningful. The majority of U.S. agriculture is within about a 500-mile radius to St. Louis. That means we can get in our cars, drive to field trials and meet with our grower partners. If you tried to do that from San Diego or New York or something, that’d be quite a haul. This proximity real works well for us.”
Benson Hill’s grower partners, says Crisp, include farmers who cultivate as few as 100 acres and growers planting in the thousands of acres.
“We call them ‘grower partners’ because it’s a bilateral relationship,” he says. “We’re not selling them something. We’re interacting with them to grow, in an identity preserved manner, this proprietary crop. We’ve got dozens that we’re engaged with all over the Midwest.”
Check out the full article from the Site Selection team here to learn more about why Missouri is the global agtech leader.