As a part of my series about “Big Ideas That Might Change The World In The Next Few Years” I had the pleasure of interviewing Ashish Malik. Ashish is President and CEO of Bee Vectoring Technologies (BVT) an AgTech company developing a disruptive new sustainable crop production tool that improves crop yields and quality. Prior to BVT he was VP of Global Marketing for Biologics at Bayer CropScience, where he was responsible for managing the portfolio of biological assets for the company and advancing the strategy to develop integrated crop solutions. Prior to Bayer, Ashish was Senior VP of Global Marketing at AgraQuest and a member of the company’s Executive Team, responsible for the company’s strategic and tactical marketing activities in addition to the regulatory affairs and product development functions, and Head of Commercial Operations for the Home Care Division at Syngenta. Mr. Malik serves on the Board of the Biological Products Industry Alliance (BPIA). He holds an MBA from Carnegie Mellon University — Tepper School of Business, and a bachelor’s degree in Engineering from Swarthmore College.
Thank you so much for joining us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?
I am passionate about our food systems. In particular, I believe securing safe, affordable food for future generations is one of the biggest challenges we have to address as a society. Within that context, there is a tremendous opportunity for innovation that can increase productivity and efficiency of these food systems while at the same time reducing the footprint and impact of that food system on the environment. This confluence of passion and opportunity is what brought me to my current career path.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began your career?
The first few conversations I had with farmers about their business were quite humbling. We had been working on different products that we believed would make farming more environmentally sustainable. So I decided to sit down and have discussions with growers about how they should adopt some of these practices. I got a bit of an earful in response — a couple of farmers politely (!) reminded me that they had been farming on the same land for generations, and therefore knew a thing or two about sustainability! If they were not using sustainable practices, then how would they have been able to farm on the same land for decades? It certainly put me back in my place, but more importantly, it taught me that farmers are some of the most honest and straightforward group of folks that you will meet.
Can you tell us about your “Big Idea That Might Change The World”?
As I mentioned earlier, we need to find ways to increase productivity in our food production in an environmentally responsible way. Farmers need tools to achieve this outcome, which includes technology to help them manage pests that can rob their crops of yield. We have developed a tool that does just that — we use the natural process of bee pollination to deliver biological control agents to crops to help them fight pests. This is an all natural system which effectively eliminates (or greatly reduces) the reliance on chemical pesticides used for crop protection and water used for spraying. At the same time, the farmer enjoys higher yields and more marketable produce which in turn means more profit on a per-acre basis for them.
How do you think this will change the world?
Consumers want clean, safe food, and regulatory agencies and food retailers are thus enacting limitations on the use of chemical pesticides on farms. Also, agriculture is the largest consumer of freshwater. Our technology gives farmers a viable alternative to synthetic pesticides and a viable alternative to the water that is used for spraying the crops. This means a much reduced impact on the environment of farming operations — fewer chemicals and less water.
Was there a “tipping point” that led you to this idea? Can you tell us that story?
There are 80 million bee hives that are used in commercial agriculture, and bees account for about one-third of the food in human diets. In the natural process of bee-pollination, bees visit the flowers of crops since that is where they get the resources they need to feed their hives. Flowers happen to be one of the areas where crops are most susceptible to damage by pests. So our tipping point came when we showed that bees can be used to carry biological products as a payload from a hive to a flower, in a similar way as they carry pollen back from the flower to the hive. After that it was about finding the “right” payload(s) — ones that are safe for the bees to carry, and that deliver the protection against pests that damage crops at or through the flower.
What do you need to lead this idea to widespread adoption?
We believe ours is a very simple and elegant solution to some of the evolving needs of global crop protection. Best of all it is all-natural. As we tell our story to growers they immediately “get it”, but they often wonder why no-one had thought of it before. So we need to prove that it works, and that it improves their farms’ economics. To achieve this we work with universities and independent third parties on research trials and conduct commercial demonstrations on actual farms. We will need to keep doing this crop by crop and country by country to get widespread adoption; ourselves and with business partners,
What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started” and why. (Please share a story or example for each.)
I am usually quite optimistic in planning how long things will take and get frustrated when things take longer than planned. In the agriculture industry we are reliant on work done in cycles of growing seasons. So if growing conditions in any one season are such that we cannot get the right data we were looking to learn from in order to take the business to next stage, it often means that we have a delay to the next growing season, which could be a whole year! This happens more often than not, and so rather than simply getting frustrated by it, we have to be better with redundancy and contingency planning.
Many people never want to make a mistake or fail. But when you are trying to build something new and unique it is impossible to know about all that it will take to succeed. This means that there will be some failures along the way. But that is absolutely OK. In fact it is a true test of an idea or for a business that learns from these failures and grows into something much stronger.
Building a business that can survive the test of time is a marathon, not a sprint. There are times that I have been tempted to take a direction that bears fruit in the short term, but is not consistent with the long term vision. I once decided to sell a product at a reduced price to generate quick sales (to relieve pressure from my stakeholders), but that only meant permanently lowering the pricing in the category which in turn impacted the gross margins on subsequent product improvement launches
In business we should make sure everyone’s ideas are heard before decisions are made. Not only is the quality of the decision that is made that much better, but equally important is the fact that everyone on the team becomes more engaged in the business and vested in its outcome if they believe that their opinion is valued. It’s just like I tell my kids — god gave us 2 ears but only 1 mouth!
Building the next great idea that will change the world takes a lot of work and long hours! You had better enjoy the people you work with, and have loads of fun along the way.
The future of work is a common theme. What can one do to “future proof” their career?
Technology is here to stay, and the rate of change in what we do and how we do it is going to keep increasing. Surround yourself with people you can learn from, and people from diverse backgrounds and industries. Embrace change by listening to their ideas and let them teach you new ways, versus you teaching them old ways!
Based on the future trends in your industry, if you had a million dollars, what would you invest in?
BVT of course! In all seriousness, I think the next several decades are very exciting for the Ag industry. Scientists have amazing tools at their disposal now, and access to data like they have never had before to understand and optimize the biological ecosystem surrounding crops. I would invest in proprietary technologies that are rooted in nature’s biology that can have the effect of helping crops reach their genetic potential or that can greatly reduce the resources that are used to grow the crops.
Which principles or philosophies have guided your life? Your career?
I believe people and companies alike have to have a moral compass and a set of values that cannot be compromised, whether you are navigating through good times or tough times. You cannot do everything yourself, so surround yourself with people that share those values and share in your passion. As Jim Collins says in Good to Great (paraphrasing) — get the right people on the bus first, and into the right seats, then figure out your direction and plans for your business.
Can you share with our readers what you think are the most important “success habits” or “success mindsets”?
Having a “can-do” mindset is a must. I get very frustrated when I hear about reasons why an idea will not work, or that we tried it earlier. I want to be surrounded by people who bring the attitude that we will find a way to make an idea work even if all the answers are not clear at the onset. I also believe in having the managerial courage to make tough decisions; taking risks is the only way to make step change improvements and leapfrog past the current state or competition.
Some very well known VCs read this column. If you had 60 seconds to make a pitch to a VC, what would you say?
Agriculture is a tremendous growth industry and one where we can garner handsome returns while making a huge positive impact for our future generations. BVT is developing a system that can change the way many crops are grown worldwide, for the better, while at the same time improving the economics for the farmer. We have demonstrated the performance of our system in multiple crops and across several countries, and are in the stage of rapid commercialization. We have a strong patent portfolio and a unique scalable business that is very partner-friendly; the industry is beginning to take notice. It is a great time to find a way to partner with us!
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