Matthew Crisp – President and CEO of Benson Hill Biosystems

Surround yourself with diverse thinkers who don’t always agree with you, and create an environment that encourages them to challenge you and colleagues and reveal blind spots.

Matthew Crisp is an accomplished executive with a strong background in the rapid growth and early commercialization phases of technology companies. Prior to co-founding Benson Hill Biosystems, he was the President of the Agricultural Biotechnology Division and Senior Vice President at Intrexon Corporation (NYSE:XON), a leading synthetic biology company. In addition to launching the company’s agbiotech efforts, Matthew worked with Intrexon for more than five years, serving in multiple executive roles and on its Board of Directors. Prior to formally joining Intrexon in early 2011, Matthew was a Managing Director at Third Security, LLC, a globally recognized venture capital firm. During his time there, Matthew focused on corporate development and worked closely with numerous private and public companies in the life science and technology sectors, as well as with NewVa Capital Partners, LP, an early-stage private equity fund focused on investments in southwestern Virginia. He also served on numerous boards of companies representing first-in-class and best-in-class technologies and led the firm’s west coast operations from 2008 until 2011. Matthew holds a Bachelor of Business Administration in Finance from Radford University, where he currently serves on the College of Business and Economics Advisory Council and on the Radford University Foundation Board of Directors as its President.

Where did the idea for Benson Hill come from?

The intersection of computation and biotechnology has been an area of focus in the broader life sciences space, but has lagged in agriculture. Our co-founders Todd Mockler and Tom Brutnell of the Donald Danforth Plant Science Center were already operating at this intersection of disciplines when we met, specifically to improve plant primary metabolism. Benson Hill was created to bring a cloud biology platform to agriculture and to tackle big challenges in crop improvement. We started with photosynthesis and recently have opened up our platform – CropOS – to empower companies of any size or capacity to tackle crop improvement using a range of tools from breeding to genome editing to transgenics.

What does your typical day look like and how do you make it productive?

No day is ever the same, and that’s how I like it. I use lists (sometimes multiple daily) to keep track of what needs to happen, to prioritize, and to allocate windows of time.

How do you bring ideas to life?

I have no technical training and have built my career surrounded with people far smarter than me. In the early stages of idea formation, I think the proverbial “not knowing what you don’t know” can be a strength because it lets you stay open-minded and flexible. Finding talented people to test and help flesh out ideas leads to a lot of dead ends but can be the most thrilling part of idea and organization formation. Rarely does one person bring an idea to life. In my experience it all happens in a team environment, and I subscribe wholly to the power of this format. My job is to orchestrate input from and with great people to develop strategy and then help drive execution.

By the way, sometimes I find it’s best to exclude experts… as someone once repeated to me and as I have posted in my home office, an expert is someone who can tell you exactly how something can’t be done.

What’s one trend that really excites you?

In the life sciences, we have tended to think about innovation as the ‘aha’ moments defined by scientific discovery. The gig economy and innovating around the business model and vehicles through which value can be delivered, whether that be to the consumer or at various points in the value chain, is a trend that has gained steam recently. But this is less so in industries subject to higher barriers to entry and regulation, like agriculture. I believe these patterns in other verticals are forcing us to rethink how value can be created and delivered in food and agriculture. The possibilities are exciting and we are only in the embryonic stages of seeing how these shifts will be realized.

What is one habit of yours that makes you more productive as an entrepreneur?

Not taking a simple “no” for an answer. When we are told “no” – whether from a potential partner or investor or otherwise – I try to understand their perspective. Why didn’t you find what we said interesting? Why are our goals not aligned with your goals? Getting answers to these questions can be a learning process that proves valuable for future interactions, and a way for us to help understand our business and the industry better.

What was the worst job you ever had and what did you learn from it?

One of my first jobs was as a customer service associate at Circuit City. Sometimes for good reason and sometimes for no reason at all people would come in upset and yell at me. Some days I really hated that job, but it taught me that most people – even the most emotional – are capable of reasoning, but that it often has little to do with the underlying concern. It was also a good lesson in resourcefulness and rolling with the punches.

If you were to start again, what would you do differently?

I would have invested more in understanding how to build talent and culture. When you’re in rapid growth mode it’s easy to compromise and make mistakes that can harm your business over time. Early in my career I thought culture was just a fluffy concept immaterial to business outcomes. The reality couldn’t be farther from the truth. Being patient and finding great people is the biggest challenge that any business faces, and many of the practices that we and others use today are still not optimal.

As an entrepreneur, what is the one thing you do over and over and recommend everyone else do?

I don’t assume I know everything and recognize that we have blind spots. I seek out thought partners and advisors, both formal and informal, and exercise frequent engagement.

What is one strategy that has helped you grow your business? Please explain how.

Finding and inspiring good people is the key. Surround yourself with diverse thinkers who don’t always agree with you, and create an environment that encourages them to challenge you and colleagues and reveal blind spots. Provide a clear vision and priorities and empower them to own your collective success and grow.

What is one failure you had as an entrepreneur, and how did you overcome it?

While we were raising our first round of institutional capital (Series A) we had a series of failures where it looked like the financing might not come together. Overcoming these setbacks involved keeping every option open and not letting our research progress slow down. In hindsight, it might have been a bit reckless but if we started to pull back we may not have met some of the milestones that ultimately helped catalyze our completion of the fundraise.

What is one business idea that you’re willing to give away to our readers?

Phosphorous is a finite resource and we use a lot of it in agriculture. A phosphorous efficiency trait for crop plants is a good target and I’m not aware that anyone is working on it. If you find one give me a call.

What is the best $100 you recently spent? What and why?

$85 for TSA pre-check. It’s a no brainer for a frequent traveler.

What software and web services do you use? What do you love about them?

I live on MS Office and our company has also adopted MS Sharepoint as a collaborative portal. We’re getting started on Hubspot and Trendkite as well, which are nice to understand better the reach of our message into the agriculture community.

What is the one book that you recommend our community should read and why?

Exponential Organizations” by Salim Ismail. Provides practical advice and perspective on disruptive thinking that can leverage exponential approaches to transform key industries.

What people have influenced your thinking and might be of interest to others?

In no particular order, Benjamin Graham, Clayton Christensen, Adam Grant, Elon Musk, Dandapani, Peter Diamandis, Sheryl Sandberg, Andrew Carnegie, Marshall Goldsmith, and Larry Keeley. R.J. Kirk, Tom Klevorn and Jon Lightner have been personal advisors and mentors.


Benson Hill Biosystems on LinkedIn:
Benson Hill Biosystems on Twitter: @bensonhillbio