Community//

Yianni Lagos of Soilcea: “Focus on the positive”

Focus on the positive. I had the privilege of meeting Warren Buffett with some fellow MBA students, and when he was speaking to us, he mentioned the ovarian lottery. How lucky he was to be born in a country with opportunity, in this time period, and with supportive parents. Winning that lottery allowed him to […]

The Thrive Global Community welcomes voices from many spheres on our open platform. We publish pieces as written by outside contributors with a wide range of opinions, which don’t necessarily reflect our own. Community stories are not commissioned by our editorial team and must meet our guidelines prior to being published.

Focus on the positive. I had the privilege of meeting Warren Buffett with some fellow MBA students, and when he was speaking to us, he mentioned the ovarian lottery. How lucky he was to be born in a country with opportunity, in this time period, and with supportive parents. Winning that lottery allowed him to be the most successful investor in history. When starting a company, there will always be disappointments. So it’s always good to keep things in perspective. I am lucky and no amount of bad luck will counteract that.


As a part of our series about business leaders who are shaking things up in their industry, I had the pleasure of interviewing Yianni Lagos.

Yianni Lagos is the chief executive officer of Soilcea, an agriculture biotechnology company. Yianni, a CFA Charterholder, earned his J.D., Magna Cum Laude and his MBA from Ohio State University, and earned his B.A., Magna Cum Laude from Vanderbilt University. Before founding Soilcea, Yianni began his legal career at Angie’s List, thereafter, moved to Washington, D.C., to work at the Future of Privacy Forum, and later worked in venture capital.


Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit more. Can you tell us a bit about your “backstory”? What led you to this particular career path?

I grew up on a farm and was always interested in agriculture. During my studies at Ohio State, I was introduced to a professor of microbiology, Dr. McSpadden Gardener, through an entrepreneurship course. Dr. Gardener was doing cutting-edge work with soil microbes. Many people are familiar with probiotics for people, and he was discovering a type of probiotic for soil and plants. While working on that project, a friend in Florida told me about citrus greening disease, a bacterial disease that had already destroyed millions of trees and posed an existential threat to the Florida citrus industry. I approached Dr. Gardener, who introduced me to Dr. Nian Wang at the University of Florida, as the top scientist working on the problem. When I first sat down with Dr. Wang I was impressed to learn how he had already used a new technology, CRISPR, to develop citrus trees resistant to another disease, citrus canker, and was applying the same technology to cure citrus greening. I immediately wanted to find a way to work with Dr. Wang and the University of Florida. Soilcea was born. Working with Dr. Wang through the Florida High Tech Corridor’s Matching Grants Research Program, Soilcea licensed his technology and now we are focused on using CRISPR to create non-GMO citrus trees that are resistant to citrus greening disease. The Florida High Tech Corridor, with its matching grant, helped jump-start development of these resistant trees.

Can you tell our readers what it is about the work you’re doing that’s disruptive?

CRISPR precision breeding is the most powerful tool for rapid breeding of new disease-resistant plants. CRISPR-Cas9 uses natural mechanisms to edit specific gene sequences of organisms. Since its invention in 2012, the scientific community has quickly accepted CRISPR as the most efficient genome-editing tool.

The USDA recently issued guidance that it will not regulate CRISPR precision breeding that could occur naturally. Unlike traditional GMOs that involve inserting a foreign gene (like a bacterial gene) into a plant, Soilcea is using CRISPR breeding to make small deletions in genes that make a tree susceptible to citrus greening. Nature constantly deletes DNA susceptible to diseases and slowly adopts the beneficial change through natural selection. At Soilcea, we are simply advancing a natural process in time to save the Florida citrus industry.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

I gave a presentation to the CEO of Florida’s Natural Growers, and in my presentation, I referred to Coca Cola (owner of Minute Maid) and PepsiCo (Tropicana). My slide deck omitted Florida’s Natural Growers, a farmer cooperative made up of several hundred member/growers that grow oranges and grapefruit to supply and produce “Florida’s Natural” nationally branded products. The head of marketing at Florida’s Naturals was quick to point out my omission. They were very gracious about my mistake and are supportive of efforts to help the Florida citrus industry, but I learned that details are critical.

We all need a little help along the journey. Who have been some of your mentors? Can you share a story about how they made an impact?

Dr. Nian Wang is an associate professor at the University of Florida, and his lab pioneered citrus genome editing using CRISPR technology. I had the opportunity to travel with Dr. Wang to China. He collaborates with scientists in China — where the disease originated — to better understand citrus greening. Traveling around citrus groves in China, speaking with Chinese scientists who had the courtesy to pick us up from the airport, and taking part in research meetings, I learned the importance of learning from as many scientists as possible to solve a problem as difficult as citrus greening.

Ron Edwards is the former chief operating officer of Tropicana, current president of Evans Properties and has been involved with several entrepreneurial endeavors, including SOBE and Blue Buffalo Pet Products. He’s provided sound business advice involving critical tasks, such as human resources, and also has kept an open mind to agriculture in Florida. He is willing to invest with Soilcea knowing that we could help restore the Florida citrus industry, but also has invested in alternative crops that may well be our competition in the future.

In today’s parlance, being disruptive is usually a positive adjective. But is disrupting always good? When do we say the converse that a system or structure has ‘withstood the test of time’? Can you articulate to our readers when disrupting an industry is positive, and when disrupting an industry is ‘not so positive’? Can you share some examples of what you mean?

Disruption created by scientific advancement is positive for society. Scientific development in agriculture will allow farmers to feed the world’s growing population in a more sustainable way. For example, the disease-resistant citrus trees Soilcea is developing will allow citrus growers to grow natural, better quality oranges more affordably and allow them to forgo the use of chemicals currently being used to slow down citrus greening disease. CRISPR is also being used in the medical world to develop cures for genetic blindness and sickle cell disease. There are, however, some critics of the potential uses of CRISPR. CRISPR, like other major scientific discoveries, has great potential to disrupt the world for good, but there should be open dialogue before researching potentially controversial uses.

Can you share 3 of the best words of advice you’ve gotten along your journey? Please give a story or example for each.

Build your network. Early on with Soilcea, I attended the Farm Progress Show in Illinois. It brings together over 150,000 farmers. I attended a talk with lead researchers at high-profile companies. And after the talk, I decided to walk up to and talk with the director of research and development at Novozymes, who was part of the BioAg Alliance with Monsanto. I was surprised how open he was to our ideas, and even more surprised when he responded to my email the following week. Soilcea collaborated on testing with the BioAg Alliance as a result. Don’t be afraid to take a chance; you never know where the opportunity may lead.

Focus on the positive. I had the privilege of meeting Warren Buffett with some fellow MBA students, and when he was speaking to us, he mentioned the ovarian lottery. How lucky he was to be born in a country with opportunity, in this time period, and with supportive parents. Winning that lottery allowed him to be the most successful investor in history. When starting a company, there will always be disappointments. So it’s always good to keep things in perspective. I am lucky and no amount of bad luck will counteract that.

Remain humble. In a marketing class I took at Vanderbilt, a guest speaker came in who described his motto in business that he was just a sales clerk. When dealing with customers, it’s important to keep everything in perspective. I am working to provide citrus growers a tree that will make their lives easier. But the growers are the ones doing the hard work to put a glass of orange juice on your table every morning. When growers give me advice, I incorporate it because I am just a sales clerk to them.

We are sure you aren’t done. How are you going to shake things up next?

CRISPR can be applied to a number of problems in agriculture. We recently started working with tomatoes and potatoes to create resistance to another deadly disease, zebra chips.

Do you have a book, podcast, or talk that’s had a deep impact on your thinking? Can you share a story with us? Can you explain why it was so resonant with you?

One of my favorite books is Player Piano by Kurt Vonnegut. In this dystopian novel, the leader of the National Manufacturing Council explains to the stories protagonist and an up and coming factory manager: “Nobody’s so damn well educated that you can’t learn ninety percent of what he knows in six weeks. The other ten percent is decoration.” I didn’t major in biology or get a Ph.D. in plant pathology. I went to school to be a lawyer. I did not receive the “proper” formal education to lead Soilcea, but I try my best to learn every day. With all due respect to the scientists I work with, who are some of the smartest people I have ever met, I think the quote is an exaggeration.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

My Papou, grandfather, liked to say: “Columbus took a chance.” My Papou immigrated from Greece at a young age, fought for the U.S. in World War II, and came back to open up a restaurant and raise a family. Founding a startup that tries to make a difference is taking a chance.

You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

Soilcea is focused on using science to improve the food we eat. Scientific advancements can improve many aspects of society, from curing human diseases to creating a more sustainable environment. I hope we can help inspire people to view science as a benefit to society.

How can our readers follow you online?

You can follow Soilcea on Facebook, Instagram and LinkedIn.

This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for joining us!

Share your comments below. Please read our commenting guidelines before posting. If you have a concern about a comment, report it here.

You might also like...

Community//

How this Greek Family brought authentic Greek food to California and developed a unique business

by Victoria Kennedy
Wisdom//

What We Don’t Realize About Making the Grade

by Angela Duckworth
Community//

Dr. Mark A. Lindholm: “I wish people understood just how amazing their human body is and their capacity for a healthy and rewarding life” With Len Giancola

by Len Giancola
We use cookies on our site to give you the best experience possible. By continuing to browse the site, you agree to this use. For more information on how we use cookies, see our Privacy Policy.