Benson Hill uses $150m Series D to ‘court’ growth equity and strategic investors

The firm’s seed development platform produces sought-after attributes such as high protein levels and counts Google’s venture arm, CDPQ and Louis Dreyfus’ venture unit among its investors.

Benson Hill’s Series D round added partners capable of helping its agricultural biology platform continue establishing its place within evolving food supply chains, said chief executive Matt Crisp.

The $150 million round was led by food and ag focused Grosvenor Estate-affiliate Wheatsheaf and GV (formerly Google Ventures), which were joined by C$333 billion ($255.7 billion; €215.3 billion) Canadian pension CDPQ and food and ag focused firms S2G Ventures and Fall Line Capital, among others. The cohort also included unnamed strategic and family office investors, as well as LDC Innovations, a corporate venture unit launched this year by Louis Dreyfus Company.

“In this round, we were courting folks that had far more scale and growth equity-minded capital, a focus on technology having been de-risked and having a commercial output and the basis on which to establish a strategic relationship,” Matt Crisp told Agri Investor.

Crisp said the mixture of agriculture-focused investors with other financial, purpose-driven and strategic capital, was part of a deliberate effort to ensure Benson Hill’s LP base can help form a holistic view of change within global food and ag supply chains.

“It is certainly fair to assume we have strong relationships with the strategic investors that are joining the cap table and there is mutual intent to find ways to work with one another in the future,” Crisp said, declining to offer additional detail on how those relationships might develop.

St Louis, Missouri-headquartered Benson Hill describes its flagship CropOS data and analytics platform as “GPS for plant breeders,” utilizing machine learning and artificial intelligence to accelerate breeding cycles and seed development. The system enables proprietary phenotyping, predictive breeding and environmental modeling algorithms to create seeds producing plants with specific productivity, nutrition, taste or sustainability attributes.

Capital from the Series D will support commercialization of its ultra-high protein soybean varieties, which have improved digestibility and elevated protein levels that is well-suited for plant-based food, animal feed and aquaculture markets.

“Benson Hill is not a brand of alternative meat. However, we have the technology platform that allows them to combine technology and an integrated business model that delivers, as some companies have put it, the ‘picks and shovels’ of the alternative, plant-based protein movement,” he said.

“It’s up on the value chain closer to the grower, but we are uniquely positioned to bridge the grower and the consumer. That’s been what has attracted a lot of attention.”

Crisp said in the near term, Benson Hill’s focus will remain on commercialization of its soybean seeds and other products it plans to introduce in 2021, while scaling to meet demand in an addressable market he estimated at more than $1 trillion.

“We’ve got a lot of room to grow,” he said. “If it makes sense for Benson Hill to form additional capital in the future – possibly in the public markets even in the next year or two – that is something that we are certainly considering.

“All of our plans right now are focused on execution and growth and less on finding one or two players. We think there’s an opportunity to partner with dozens of players inside of the value chain and we are aggressively pursuing those partnership and new relationships.”

Large food companies expressing interest in partnering with Benson Hill, said Crisp, have included some with no formal venture arms or track record of making direct investments.  Such interest, he said, reflects the increasing focus among food industry incumbents on a “disconnect” between consumer demand for better food and their organizational structures, many of which were built with a commodity mindset.

“The future of food system is trending away from that theme, which has existed for decades, at a pace that these large incumbents are not able to keep up with,” said Crisp.  “Some of them are being forced to look outside of their companies – some more aggressively than others – to find solutions that allow them to create differentiation and add value in the system such that their role can continue to be maintained, so they can be relevant.”