CNBC Disruptor 50

Indigo Agriculture holds the secret to pesticide-free crops and the future of food

Key Points
  • Indigo Agriculture is using microbes to help farmers grow crops in challenging conditions.
  • The start-up boasted $67 million in annual bookings in 2017 and is on target to hit half a billion this year, according to CEO David Perry.
George Kavallines | CNBC

Indigo Agriculture CEO David Perry grew up raising corn and cows on his family's farm in Arkansas. While he wasn't the type to set up a lemonade stand, he did show early entrepreneurial tendencies. He remembers gathering receipts and diving into the books of the family business at age 11 to figure out whether corn or beef was more profitable.

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Now Perry is on a mission to help all farmers maximize their profits, while minimizing their impact on the environment.

His company has developed something of a weedkiller killer, which may also prove a Monsanto or Bayer killer. The company uses naturally occurring microbes instead of genetic modifications or chemicals to help plants survive and grow in rough conditions.

Indigo Agriculture's beneficial microbes can be applied as a liquid or powder coating to seeds (a standard process in agriculture already). They also can be sprayed onto flowering plants, which take the beneficial microbes into their seeds.

The technology is a way to help improve crop production and generate more food without the side effects associated with pesticides. This is crucial, since we may need 70 percent more crop production by 2050 to keep up with food demand, according to the FAO.

To develop each product, Indigo Agriculture has sent employees to sample what Perry calls "survivor" plants around the world. They study the few plants that are growing healthily under duress in a given area, archiving data about their DNA and what's in their microbiome.

"We have what we think is the world's largest collection of microbes that live in plants," Perry said. "We put them all in a database and have created algorithms to figure out which microbes will help plants and under which conditions, whether that's drought or some pest or disease."

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The company has tested on every continent but Antarctica in different growing seasons. It also has 50 farms in the United States that it works with for constant year-round research and development, Perry said.

In 2016 and 2017 Indigo Agriculture found its microbes garnered an 11 percent yield improvement and a 14 percent yield improvement on cotton farms in drought-stricken Texas. Perry said:

"We know that microbes impact our health, including our tendency to get infections, cancer, whether we'll be fat or thin. Now we're discovering that's true in plants."

So far, Indigo Agriculture has focused on commodity crops including corn, wheat, soybeans, cotton and rice. Long-term it plans to develop microbes for vegetables, berries and other high-value crops, too.

While the company had about $67 million in annual bookings in 2017, it is on target to hit half a billion this year, Perry said.

The start-up has raised $342 million in equity funding and $59 million in venture debt so far. It now employs about 350 full-time, with primary offices in Charlestown, Massachusetts, and Memphis.