Benson Hill Biosystems: Today’s tech, tomorrow’s food supply

The planet’s agricultural output is not on pace to meet the demands of a growing population.

Increasing levels of urbanization, climate change and shifting diets are putting a strain on agriculture’s ability to keep up.

“We are going to have more than 9 billion people on the planet in the next 35 years,” said Matthew Crisp, CEO of Benson Hill Biosystems, a crop-improvement company with roots in Research Triangle Park. “In that time, we need to double agricultural productivity.”

Crisp’s company brings data-driven and high-tech solutions to the world’s first industry: farming. They combine expertise in plant biology, analytics and cloud computing to streamline the research and development process for new crops, with a focus on small- to mid-sized agricultural companies.

“Quinoa, amaranth, cucumbers, berries — these things have just not got a lot of large-scale R&D attention,” Crisp said. “Reduce cost by 60 to 80 percent and reduce time to market, then all of the sudden people are like, ‘Hey we can invest in this small grain crop, and it’s worthwhile.’”

Experiments ‘in silico’

Benson Hill’s analytics platform — known as CropOS — would not have been possible if not for advancements in cloud computing from companies such as Google and Amazon.

“Five or ten years ago, the cost for a small company to access large data sets and to use machine-learning based tools required hardware and a lot of infrastructure that was very, very expensive,” Crisp said.

Benson Hill’s CropOS can run experiments “in silico,” by means of computer modeling and simulation, and then take what they learn into the field.

“You go out into the field, and maybe you’re planting a bunch of different versions of what your in silico platform told you you ought to look at,” Crisp said. “You can narrow your funnel from millions of things that could be done randomly to maybe dozens of things that are chosen through a combination of machine and human intelligence, and then you cycle that resulting information back into the system.”

The combination of simulated and real data from the field increases the accuracy of future in silico experiments, Crisp said.

“There’s a biological feedback loop that tells the system what worked and what didn’t work. And with every data set that you add, the system gets more intelligent.”

Benson Hill Biosystems CEO Matthew Crisp. Photo courtesy of Benson Hill Biosystems.

Innovating faster

Introducing a new crop to market takes a huge investment of time and capital. The tools offered by Benson Hill’s platform can halve time to market and cut costs by 75 percent or more, Crisp said.

CropOS uses machine learning to speed up the research and development process for partners and deliver insights faster.

“A lot of what our value proposition revolves around is being able to innovate much faster,” Crisp said.

And that innovation in plant science and food production is crucial to increasing crop diversity.

“99.9 percent of calories that are consumed come from less than .1 percent of the genetic diversity of plants,” Crisp said.

This enormous concentration amongst a small number of crops is exacerbated by the fact that the industry is dominated by a few large companies. For example, 80 percent of agricultural R&D dollars come from five companies, Crisp said

“Very few companies focused on very few crops tends not to lead to a remarkable amount of innovation,” Crisp said.

What Crisp calls “Big Agriculture” and “Big Food” have decreased crop diversity, creating a massive dependence on very few strands of crops, such as corn and soybeans. If one crop strand is wiped out, the impact is global.

“A lot of crop improvement historically has been focused on increasing yield, making crops more resilient — that has primarily benefitted the growers,” Crisp said. “There has been less focus on some of the traits and characteristics that consumers are more interested in.”

Benson Hill has made consumer needs such as taste and nutrition the focus of innovation — instead of just increased sales or lower production costs for growers.

Genomic improvements include making crops more sustainable — meaning they capture more carbon from the atmosphere and increase yield, benefitting both the grower and consumer.

“CropOS can use machine learning to help us predict how to make genomic improvements in crop plants,” Crisp said.

North Carolina Biotechnology Center

Crisp, who lives in Cary, started Benson Hill in 2012. The company has two locations — Research Triangle Park and St. Louis, Missouri, where most research took place.

“Early on, we got a $50,000 grant from NC BioTech that was loan we ended up paying back that really helped in the company’s first financing,” Crisp said.

Now headquartered in St. Louis, Benson Hill recently worked with the NC BioTech center to co-found an internship program and a project with North Carolina State University and Cotton Incorporated.

Benson Hill is addressing the agricultural changes and improvements that are needed to increase food security in the face of massive global population growth.

“The easiest way to think about Benson Hill is that we’re focused on improving crops,” Crisp said.

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