Germin8’s Michael Lavin on Creating a Resilient Food System for the Future
Michael Lavin is the Founder & Managing Partner of Germin8 Ventures, which invests in companies that will provide food security and productivity improvement, impact lives and catalyze major shifts even beyond the scope of food and agriculture – including Enko!
We sat down with him to talk about the biggest threats our food system faces, why solutions like Enko will be the building blocks for other tech advancements and why consumers need accurate scientific information about their food. Below is a condensed and edited version of our conversation.
What motivated you to start Germin8, and what experiences in the food industry shaped your investment thesis?
I grew up around the food industry and observed from early on how important food is to everyone – we all eat, it’s tightly interwoven with culture and the livelihoods of 2.5 billion people depend on it. This is a massive sector that everyone touches every day.
The idea to start Germin8 came while I was an investment banker. I recognized the need for a VC firm that has an arm’s reach connection with food and ag companies, but also with research institutions and policymakers. I wanted to partner with the most innovative and bold founders, and enable them with every opportunity and advantage possible to bring their solutions to market successfully.
What do you believe are the most pressing threats our food system is facing?
A big challenge in the food system is the need for greater stewardship – from corporate incumbents, emerging startups, investors, policymakers and consumers. Our food system is critical to our nourishment and our economies, but it’s also environmentally destructive, handicapped by failing economic regimes and has to scale against the headwinds of disease resistance, climate change and resource scarcity. Food production contributes one third of greenhouse gas emissions, and yet we need to increase production by 70 percent to meet demand by 2050.
Farmers aren’t being compensated to solve these challenges. At Germin8, we’re investing in solutions that can fundamentally change ag and drive a higher standard of stewardship for the next 200 years. To achieve this, we all need to appreciate the contributions of key stakeholders, particularly farmers, and enable them with economic opportunities to profitize such stewardship.
Are you optimistic about our collective ability to solve these challenges?
I wouldn’t be doing what I do if I weren’t optimistic, but I am driven by a real sense of urgency. We’re at the base of a mountain looking up, but there are teams armed with tools and a vision for the ascent.
What excites you most about Enko’s approach to redesigning the crop health R&D pipeline?
Enko is working on a relatively ignored area of opportunity. Incumbents and most investors in this sector have focused efforts on biologics, genetics and digital technologies. Meanwhile, overuse of current crop protection chemicals harms ecology and human health.
Innovation in crop protection chemistry represents an extraordinary opportunity. Any farmer will tell you that crop protection is essential and perhaps likened to insurance – without it, they struggle to bear the risks of trying biologics, automated machinery or drones. Likewise, big innovation and repositioning of crop protection holds great potential for catalyzing more responsible farming, boosting farmers’ bottom lines, and spurring the wherewithal and confidence for farmers to try, adopt and pay for new tech.
What does crop protection innovation mean for farmers?
It means that we’re not asking farmers to abandon their tried and true crop protection practices, or “bet the farm,” on the new tech. We’re offering alternatives to do it magnitudes better and solve their problems–they trust small molecule chemistry, so this doesn’t require a radical mindset shift. Transforming farming shouldn’t necessarily mean complete disruption, but rather an elegant shift of certain practices, while still respecting the practices that farmers need intact.
What other technologies are on your radar when it comes to our food system? Which ones hold the most promise to make the system more secure, equitable and prosperous?
Germin8 aims to invest in science and technologies that catalyze profound shifts in production methods, productivity and influence. Such companies are often platforms that are more than just incremental or innovation in the margins -- they unlock opportunity for second order innovation and so-on. Companies like Enko’s chemical discovery, Brightseed’s phytonutrient elucidation, and some microbiome mapping and in silico modelling platforms are representative of this.
We’re also investing in digital technology companies that achieve platform status, like Bushel, a fintech platform for the grain industry. It digitizes the heavily manual and analog business between farmers, grain elevators, processors, food companies and others. This new digital infrastructure optimizes existing practices and powers new avenues of opportunity across the stakeholders.
What do you wish more people knew about the food system?
I wish more people understood the basics of the science behind our food. We need that to promote the right action – and to cancel out the noise, misdirection and purpose-washing. A 2015 survey from Oklahoma State University found that 80% of Americans support mandatory labels on food containing DNA. Of course, DNA is the building block of all living things, so this shows a big information gap between the general public and the scientific world. I contributed a piece to SynBioBeta that digs further into the topic of ensuring consumers get accurate scientific information.
Ultimately, we are all stakeholders in our food system. We have a direct lifeline to it, and it to us. It’s on us all to respect and appreciate the people that put food on our tables, educate ourselves about these systems and be stewards for that lifeline.
By Jacqueline Heard, CEO and founder