Benson Hill CEO Matt Crisp isn't happy about what's been done to much of the food grown today. During the last century, the agriculture industry bred food to boost yield and stability for when it's transported or sitting on the shelf. Meanwhile, attributes that consumers care about, such as flavor and nutrition, got lost in the mix.
Now, the 38-year-old founder is aiming to tap into recent advances in CRISPR and data analytics to return those values back to everything from tomatoes and peppers, and to popular ingredients in plant-based products, such as soybeans and yellow peas. After eight years of work, Benson Hill is making progress, and retailers, CPG manufacturers, ingredients suppliers and investors are taking notice.
“We in the value chain are getting this unique opportunity in time where we can essentially innovate on crops that have deserved innovation for a really long time but haven’t been [innovated], or haven't been innovated in the ways that we as consumers want to see it," said Crisp. "I think we have a responsibility to do that and we have the technology to do that."
Benson Hill's goal is to create ingredients that are more nutritious, sustainable and better tasting. The company, for example, has created what it claims is the most nutrient-dense soybean in the world, loaded with more protein than a traditional variety. The end result is not only a more nutritious legume but also one that can generate more protein across across a smaller amount of land while using less water and energy.
The company is working to return some of the natural flavors that have been bred out of tomatoes, creating an offering that would be more enticing to the shopper.
And Benson Hill also is developing a yellow pea, a popular ingredient in plant-based milks, yogurts, snack bars and meats. Food companies often cover its bitter taste by adding sugar, salt or other masking agents. Benson Hill would not only eradicate the off-putting flavor in the yellow pea, but also increase both the quality and quantity of the protein the plant creates. In the process, it would remove the need for sugar and salt that more consumers are trying to avoid as they look to eat healthier.
“If you get rid of these nasty compounds ... and you contract with good growers, they can grow a crop that doesn’t produce these nasty materials that taste horrible to humans, and lo and behold we don't have to mask it with a bunch of sodium and sugar," Crisp said. "You can use genetics again by making it better from the beginning to create a cleaner-label product.”
In October, Benson Hill announced its latest funding round of $150 million co-led by GV, the venture capital arm of Google parent Alphabet, and Wheatsheaf Group. The Series D funding, by far the company's biggest round since it was founded in 2012, brings the total amount Benson Hill has raised to $280 million.
While Benson Hill remains focused on developing its technology, the company has matured to a point where it can do more to commercialize its discoveries, Crisp said. It will target most of the recent funding round toward increasing adoption of its products among new and existing customers.
A key facet of the company's business strategy centers around controlling the supply chain to ensure the marketplace for its seeds can prosper. For example, in the case of soybeans, the current supply chain is designed to process billions of bushels of the crop grown each year. This could limit the opportunity for Benson Hill's offering to reach a sustainable scale.
Today, Benson Hill produces its seeds, distributes them to farmers it partners with to grow, then collects the crops from growers before processing and selling it. Potential customers include ingredients companies, retailers, food manufacturers and restaurants around the world.
“We need to and have developed the capability to ultimately meet the customer where they are, and if that means supplying them with a technology, or a seed or a finished ingredient, we have the opportunity to do all of the above,” Crisp said.