In this ongoing series, we ask executives, entrepreneurs and business leaders about mistakes that
have shaped their business philosophy.



President and CEO, Benson Hill Biosystems


Background:  

Benson Hill Biosystems, based in St. Louis with additional operations in Durham, N.C., is an agriculture technology company that optimizes plants’ genetic variations through breeding, trait development and genome editing to develop products and improve crops. One of its technology platforms, CropOS, pairs biological knowledge with data analytics to help users identify the most promising plant genetics in weeks instead of multiple growing seasons.

The Mistake:

Weighing down the company’s elevator pitch with too much technical detail.

We were telling a story that was very different than anything else in the marketplace. We were taking technologies that had never really been put together to solve a problem that other people had tackled in a very different way previously. I think, when telling that story early on, we focused heavily on the different technologies that we were pulling together from a biotech perspective and a data science perspective. We weren’t able to articulate as clearly what the outcome was and why it was really, really important.

Early in our company’s life cycle we talked about how we … improved photosynthetic efficiency through complex metabolic engineering … and most peoples’ heads were spinning by the time we finished two or three sentences. When you have that conversation with potential investors who don’t really understand an industry like agriculture or who have never made an investment in agriculture or who, for that matter, have never done due diligence in an industry like agriculture, I think we lost a lot of people trying to explain our story. We were focused far more on the technical than we should have been. It made conveying that message very complex.

Now, we talk more about why improving crops matters.

The Lesson:

I think we’ve done a good job recently of focusing on why we’re doing what we’re doing. And, I think our employees would agree that we, as of a year or so ago, began communicating first why what we’re doing matters, what impact it has environmentally and societally, and then talking about the how.

It’s not just telling that story to potential investors. I think it’s important we explain the story to potential customers, partners and new people we want to recruit. So it was a lesson that went far beyond how to raise capital. We’ve kind of changed the way we’re discussing Benson Hill and, because of that, had more success in fundraising, had more success in recruiting, had more success in developing new partnerships. And we’ve simplified, in large part, the message of what we’re doing such that a broad audience can understand it more clearly and it resonates with them.

Now, we talk more about why improving crops matters. You talk about the outcome, then you work your way backward. That’s helped us crystallize a message that resonates with a broader audience. If they are technically adept and want to dive in with the science, we are able to talk more specifically about how we are able to do what we do. They can ask about the technology and what the specific outcome might be. Is it better production? Is it better photosynthesis? Is it better nutrition or grain quality? All of the above may be applicable. But, if I led with that, it muddles the story.

The company description, as complicated as it sounds, is so much clearer than even a year ago. When we’re talking about that storyline and the elevator pitch, I wouldn’t even use some of those words – like genome editing. Simplifying it further, to say that we have this platform and it identifies ways to improve genetics and make better crops, that’s the most straightforward takeaway that helps people understand, “OK, you’re improving crop genetics.”

Benson Hill Biosystems is on Twitter at @BensonHillBio and Matthew Crisp is at @EnergyCrisp.

Photo courtesy of Benson Hill Biosystems.

Do you have a good story you’d like to share, or know someone we should feature? Email cberman@crain.com.

And be sure to sign up for your local newsletter from Crain’s St. Louis.