Meet the Innovators: Cameron Norgate
TPB: You’ve got an interesting career path, how did you make the journey into agtech?
CN: I never started out with agriculture as a destination - it was more about following the intersection of my interests, and the potential for real world impact. When I joined Climate I knew very little about farming, but could feel the space was ripe for disruption using the latest in software and data science technologies. In my final interview with Dave Friedberg, he framed the size of opportunity in agriculture, and that conversation has stuck with me to this day - the scale of global agriculture is huge, the potential impact is life changing, and the adoption of technology is only just beginning. I felt then, as I do now, that we’re only just getting started.
TPB: Tell us about co-founding Pattern.
CN: The Climate Corporation developed models that offered farmers a whole new way of looking at their land, but models can only go so far. I always felt we needed ‘ground truthed’ data from the field to better understand and influence farm outcomes. When Dave approached me with the idea of applying metagenomics to explore the complex relationships between plants and soil microbes, it really clicked. After more than 20,000 years of agriculture, it’s surprising how little we know about the soil and microbes we depend on for nourishment and life. With a team from The Production Board and my colleague Jamil Alajrab, we made a big bet that understanding the complex biology of agriculture would unlock the next wave of productivity growth and sustainability in agriculture.
TPB: Can you expand on that? What does the future of agriculture look like to you?
CN: Today, farmers have very little insight into the microbial communities driving yield outcomes in their fields. Yet, farming is a fundamentally biological process. It’s hard to imagine a future where we don’t understand and influence those biological systems to drive improved productivity and sustainability. While much of agriculture in the 20th century was about controlling the natural environment with chemicals, we believe the 21st century will be about understanding and influencing the natural environment to work with and for us. We call this microbiome engineering, and believe it is the future of a more productive, sustainable, and resilient food system. That sounds like an exaggeration but the opportunity is really that big - over time we believe microbiome engineering will supplement and replace many of the conventional inputs used today. By building and scaling our metagenomics platform, we are making that future possible.
TPB: How do you explain the science of metagenomics to farmers?
CN: Farmers understand intuitively that the biology of their soil plays a critical role in the outcomes they achieve. But they’ve never had a cost effective, scalable way to understand or influence those systems. They’ve been flying blind. When we explain that our analysis can show them exactly what is living in and around their farm, they instantly grasp the potential impact. So the conversation is often less about the science of metagenomics, and more about the insights and decisions we can make based on our analysis. When the conversation does get into the details of our technology, we find farmers are quite comfortable talking about gene based technologies, given the significance of plant breeding, and the widespread adoption of trait technologies in agriculture.
TPB: How do you convince farmers to try Pattern on their farm?
CN: Farmers are naturally curious, and always interested in new ways to push the productivity and profitability of their operation. But it’s a very competitive business, and they don’t have much margin to spend on technologies that are unproven or unable to show a clear ROI in year one. So that’s where we focus when meeting with a customer for the first time. Pattern finds ways to improve input decisions that can add $50/acre or more to the bottom line in our first year, and that can mean the difference between profit and loss. Over time, we will be able to add even more value as we help farmers improve the productivity and resilience of their farmland, but those changes can take multiple years, so it’s important that we can show value on day one.
TPB: So it’s good for business. What about the environment?
CN: Sustainability is a critical component of our mission and value proposition - both for individual farmers, and for the planet at large.
For farmers, this is about protecting and improving their most valuable asset - their land. Erosion and soil degradation has destroyed the productivity of certain growing regions, sometimes within the span of a generation or less. Preventing this loss, and rebuilding healthy topsoil is something that is top of mind for every farmer, and microbes are key to this process. For example, by improving the soil microbiome we can make changes to a soil’s structure that will increase its ability to hold water, which improves farm productivity and resilience.
For the planet, this is about feeding a growing population while reducing our environmental impact. Rather than bringing more land into production through deforestation, we need to find ways to grow more on the land we already have under cultivation. Microbes in the soil are key to cycling nutrients and making them available to plants. With Pattern’s analysis, farmers can better target where they need to apply nutrients or other inputs, and then rely on the soil microbes to help maximize the impact of those inputs once applied. For farmers this means increased profitability; for the agriculture sector as a whole, this means we can produce more food on a smaller footprint. It’s a win-win for everyone.
TPB: Do growers share that commitment to the environment?
CN: Farmers have a deep commitment to sustainability -- they just use different language to express it. Land is likely a farmer’s most valuable asset. It’s their lifeblood and the inheritance they will pass on to their children. They want to leave it in better shape than they got it, so they are constantly asking how they can maintain and improve the long-term productivity and sustainability of their soil, because they know how important it is to the future viability of their land.
TPB: How does it scale?
CN: Pattern’s analysis has a strong network effect. As we build our collection of microbial data and on-farm outcomes, we improve our ability to interpret results and recommend actions. Mapping the microbiome for farming is like building a massive puzzle, and each new customer we serve adds another piece, making the picture clearer for everyone. It’s important that we can get enough data to complete the picture for a given crop and geography, which is why we started by targeting the two largest crops -- corn and soybeans, representing hundreds of millions of acres in the US alone. But once we’ve refined the process for corn and beans, there’s nothing stopping us from expanding to additional crops and geographies. It’s not only exciting from a business perspective but it’s inspiring to think about the impact we could have on global food security.
TPB: Any advice for students or others who want to get into agtech?
CN: You’ve got to be in it for the long-term and you have to start with a good foundation.
Start with a deep understanding of farmers, how their business works, and what challenges they face. Then take a long view on the opportunities in agriculture. You probably need to be thinking in decade-long timescales. As an example, the technology behind Glyphosate resistant corn and soybeans (one of the most successful agriculture innovations of the last 20 years) got its start in the 1970’s, but wasn’t broadly adopted until the mid 2000’s.
At Pattern we are working to unleash nature’s inherent potential to drive improved farm outcomes. It’s hard to imagine a future without a much deeper understanding and influence over these biological systems, but getting there takes time. People tend to overestimate what they can do in a year and underestimate what they can do in a decade -- I believe that will be true for Pattern as well.