In Post-IPO Glow, Benson Hill Chief Counts Lessons Learned

Matt Crisp calls stock offering for ag-tech innovator a “starting line” rather than a “finishing line.”

Matt Crisp rang the bell a couple of weeks ago opening trading on the New York Stock Exchange after an IPO for his St. Louis-based company, Benson Hill. Investors promptly rewarded the CEO of the ag-tech startup by bidding the price of its shares down by about 30% over the next two weeks.

But Crisp is taking the long view. “Becoming a publicly traded company has the feeling of being just a stop on the journey, for those of us who believe in our plan to advance the food system,” he told Chief Executive. “We think about this not as crossing a finish line but crossing a starting line.”

It isn’t clear what was the initial issue of concern for investors in Benson Hill—BHIL on the exchange. In any event, Crisp is moving forward with $319 million in gross proceeds to Benson Hill, along with a 28% increase in the company’s second-quarter revenues to about $49 million.

Benson Hill, founded in 2012, aims to revolutionize agriculture by using data science, artificial intelligence and machine learning to help improve crop varieties with better accuracy, nutritional value and sustainability than traditional breeding methods.

The company already has improved soybeans in the field and has launched a breeding and commercialization program for advanced yellow peas, which have come front-and-center as a preferred ingredient for the plant-based incursion in the food industry that seeks to unseat traditional animal protein in everything from jerky to yogurt.

Here are some things that Crisp already has learned in steering Benson Hill to public status and gearing up for post-IPO growth:

Thank your supporters. Crisp’s first lesson from the IPO unfolded before the iconic bell-ringing on the floor of the NYSE: Express gratitude to the people who got you there. The exchange provides IPO companies with plenty of on-site amenities to do so.

“It was a little bit surreal, but invigorating,” Crisp recalled. “We had a lot of trusted colleagues [at the IPO] who helped us to advance the company through rough times. And it was even more special to have literally dozens of people come to New York who were long-time supporters, advisors, board members and investors.”

• Consider a SPAC. Benson Hill was swooped up by a SPAC, Star Peak, last spring in a $2-billion deal that valued Benson Hill at about $1.35 billion and generated $625 million in cash proceeds. Their combination came last spring near the zenith of the SPAC phenomenon, which since has trailed off some.

Crisp was sanguine about choosing a SPAC to go public. “We gained a degree of understanding going into the market about what our valuation looked like, and we were executing with a partner that had ‘been there and done that,’” he said. “That allowed our leadership team to focus on running the company. In a traditional IPO, macro events can change things, and the market becomes fickle, which can happen virtually overnight.

“So with that, you can spend a lot of money and bandwidth and leadership and management time getting to the point in time when, that afternoon, it may not make sense to go public. We didn’t want to compromise our strategy at any level.”

Crisp also found that “one of the biggest benefits of having a SPAC partner to take you public is that you can bring new investors behind the curtain and give them a degree of visibility into your business that you can’t enable for a traditional IPO.”

• Put it into context. Crisp said the IPO offered a re-set more than a sense of accomplishment. “We are now a publicly traded company with our own ticker and our own earnings calls, and that’s the culminating event: to have become public and to earn the trust of the market over time,” he said.

“Over the last three or four years, we’ve reached multiple inflection points that have allowed us to cross the chasm into commercial markets and commercial products for real customers and begin scaling the business at a rapid clip,” Crisp said. “Our strategy and plans haven’t changed. What we’re building is exactly on trajectory and along the lines of what we indicated we’d execute.”

• Prepare for a marathon. Crisp also acknowledged Benson Hill’s place in an increasingly crowded derby of companies that want to perfect plant proteins for a market that is booming, with lots of expansion seemingly in sight. A number of other companies are working assiduously with yellow-pea protein as well, both in the heartland and in California, where, for instance, pioneer Josh Tetrick founded Hampton Creek, whose name recently changed to Just.

Crisp is counting in part on Benson Hill’s presence in Missouri, a historic center of ag and biotech, boasting the most PhD plant scientists in the world. Benson Hill now has about 350 employees in St. Louis.

Build the board. Post-IPO, a couple of previous independent former directors are rolling off the board, and in replacing them Benson Hill has added individuals that bring expertise and experience in two particular areas that are crucial to the company right now. and will remain so as it grows. Linda Whitley-Taylor is executive vice president and chief people officer of Change Healthcare, and Molly Montgomery is a former CEO and a director at Wilbur-Ellis and other companies.

Benson Hill has 40 open positions, and Crisp noted that Whitley-Taylor “really lives talent and culture development, and talent strategy.” And as Benson Hill works to move more of its products from the lab to the field, he said, Montgomery brings “a really strong grasp of value-added and integrated approaches to monetizing value and integration across the value chain.”