Naveen Sikka: Founder and CEO of Terviva – Ep. 109

About Naveen Sikka & Terviva:

Naveen Sikka is the CEO of Terviva, an ag-tech company that’s transforming the food landscape. 

We rely on just a few crops for our survival, think corn, wheat, etc. But we know that there are many issues with modern agriculture as it’s been performed.

Naveen and his team have created a true win/win/win company by creating a regenerative food system based on the Pongamia tree, a tree that grows where many other crops can’t.

In addition to reclaiming “bad” farmland, this tree produces both oil and protein with far-reaching positive implications for our health and the planet.

Terviva has received somewhere in the ballpark of 100 million in funding, and they’ve been recognized as one of the 25 most innovative ag-tech startups by Forbes several years in a row.

Full Unedited Audio Conversation:

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The Origins of Terviva

*3:27 – “The whole idea behind Terviva was how do we create more diversification in this very concentrated food system? A handful of crops often grown in very selected parts of the world and then actually shipped around the world, right? If you think about our major crops like corn and soy, the vast majority of those crops are grown here in the US and in South America then we ship that all around the world. Well, even to my simple eyes, 15, 17 years ago that seemed foolish. One, you’re not creating more economic opportunities around the world for farmers by spreading the love of where these things are growing. Two, it’s going to be climate unstable – you got bad weather in one parts of those places where you’re growing these crops, you’re going to have shortages of food. And, three, it just seemed so dated. We have so many modern tools around genomics, even for non GMO crop development, and we’ve got distributed infrastructure now coming online and we’ve got things like AI and blockchain. It just felt like more modern thinking should come with this whole supply chain to make it economically more enriching and environmentally more stable.” 

4:50 – “The thing to look to when you think about the food space is not maybe those commodity crops like the big ones, but in frontline communities around the world, there are what we call indigenous crops, that are grown in frontline communities where there’s poor agricultural land, could we take those indigenous crops and make them the next corn or the next soy? Could you not have five major crops around the world, but could you have 50? That was the idea behind Terviva. Could we build a platform to bring these more minor crops, things like lentils or cassava or sorghum, or in our case, the pongamia tree or moringa or, tiger nut or croton nut or fava bean…there’s tons of these frontline community crops, right? Could we bring them up to being major sources of food, like corn, like soy, like palm. Create economic opportunities in different parts of the world and create more environmental stability and resilience.”  

6:48 – “A funny thing’s happened in our world in the last 10 years, right? Which is technology and technology leaders have kind of captured the zeitgeist and the capital, right? So, a lot of approaches right now to the food and ag space are what I would call, not nature based. They’re man-made, synthetic, ‘invent around nature’ approaches to the food system. I’m kind of an all of the above guy. I think we’ve got to do a lot of stuff in the food system to make it resilient. But so much of the energy right now is around…making substitutes for meat in steal vats or growing crops indoors now or genetically modifying the hell out of crops to do crazy different things. I worry about that, right? Because I think the best interest to humanity often lie in working with the planet and with nature, not trying to work around it.”

8:50 – “This idea that there’s one thing to solve all of our problems is a uniquely human thing that we do. Nature never thinks that one thing solves things; like nature is kind of a system. But you think about what got us into this mess, right? Like even take it away from food for a second and look at energy, right? When we started using petroleum way back, a couple hundred years ago, for our modern energy needs, it was actually a great thing because before that we were using whale oil. We were slaughtering whales for their fat, for our energy needs, right? So petroleum was this great thing, save the whales, let’s use petroleum. What happened? We did use it to save the whales. Then we used petroleum for everything. I’m looking at my desk. There’s is petroleum in everything.  Plastics, cars, airplanes, obviously energy, right? Everything – your rug is made of petroleum, right? So there is this thing about humanity where we tend to take things too far…it moves from good to being a problem.”

10:08 – “What are we doing with the pongamia tree? I am hoping that what we’re doing is emblematic of the fact that you could have 50 other crops like pongamia, right? So the pongamia tree is what I call a soybean producing tree. It’s a legume tree. It’s in the legume family. It’s a distant relative of soy. Think of a tree like an almond tree – it flowers, and it sets a crop with bees, and instead of it being almonds, it’s actually a bean. It’s like a big soybean. This tree has been around forever and, like a lot of indigenous community crops, it was favored by frontline communities because it did two things. One, it grew really well on crappy land. A lot of these frontline community crops – no input, put the tree on the ground, limited water, no fertilizer, it’s going to grow and you’re going to get something out of it. Two, frontline community crops have a minor usage…. in pongamia’s case, the beans have these bitter compounds that are very good for cosmetics and personal care and some health-related benefits.”

11:22 – “What we did with pongamia is two things. One, we took that essence of the growing really well on poor quality land and we proved you could get a lot of yield. We still use really poor quality land and we get a lot of beans. If you take the world average of soybean production, we can produce five, seven times more beans per acre than soybeans, and we can do it on land where if you grew soybeans, you would get zero, you would get zero soybeans, right?… The second thing we did was, okay, these beans are super bitter, right? But, fundamentally, they’re like a soybean. You’ve got a vegetable oil in it, you’ve got a protein in it, just like a soybean. Can we find a way to de-bitter these beans, use some kind of food processing, ideally natural food processing to de-bitter these beans so we get something very similar to soybean oil and soybean protein? But, obviously, growing a tree on degraded land, you’re having so many more environmental benefits. It takes a long time, but we did both.”

12:22 – “I had hoped initially we would do this for like five crops, 10 crops, right? But it’s hard. We’ve had to raise a crapload of money and build a huge team just to do this one tree. So, at this point, what I want to do is see if we can be a platform, almost both a marketing platform and a vision platform, to bring other crops forward. But we’re going to have to bring other entrepreneurs along with us. It’s going to take a whole system to add more crops into our food system at scale.”

13:15 – “The diversification of our diet is also equally as important, right? So at the same time, we have to kind of bring more crops forward and we kind of have to make them broadly usable, like what I call center of the plate food – not like something you sprinkle on your salad, but the salad. We also have to…human nature, we got to play to it, right? And humans naturally want to see one thing being used in a lot of things like, ‘Oh, there’s, there’s pongamia in that,’ – we call it Ponova, we’re branding the ingredient – ‘There’s Ponova in that, there’s Ponova in that.’ So we’re going to have to sort of play the deck of cards that human interest likes to see, which is like getting Ponova into a lot of things and kind of beating Ponova forward while at the same time trying to bring that diversity of other food products into the system.”

15:25 – “We’re used to, the food system is – it’s like food everywhere. Food always available. Food for cheap. Everywhere. Always. Cheap. That’s the system we’ve built, which I think has actually solved a lot of problems around the world, if you think about like hunger and affordability, right? But it’s come at the cost of health and climate. So I think we’ve got to keep those elements, but we’ve got to kind of heal health and heal climate and we’re not going to be able to do that by having that many diversified outcomes on the field.”

16:50 – “What’s interesting about a tree like pongamia is that when you put trees on a field, if you really stack the trees on the field like we do in the US with almonds, you put about 200 trees in an acre. But what you could do in small holding farm systems is you could put five or you could put fifty – and then you could farm in between, You could graze livestock, you could farm grains or pulses, wheat, rye, barley, corn, soy, peas, coffee, pineapple. That’s the system that I think we want to see in Terviva. We like working with a tree crop because it allows for you to use the airspace above the field, so to speak, and you can still use a lot of the ground with it.”

18:25 – “Pongamia, the reason why it survives well with limited inputs, like not as much water, no fertilizer, is because it has a big root system. So the tree puts out a lot of roots, shallow and deep, and two things are happening in that root system. Pongamia is a legume, so it actually creates its own nitrogen, it has a mechanism where it can capture nitrogen out the air, which is our most abundant element in the air, and it can make nitrogen in the soil for itself. All legumes do this, so you have a restoration of nitrogen around the tree, and also, as a result, you’re creating what they call organic matter in the soil. You’re creating carbon in the soil here by growing all those roots, and so other organisms start to come back on that field.”

19:45 [On whether the pongamia tree can help the problem of desertification] – “Before we came around and started to work on the pongamia tree to improve the yields and also use it for food, it had this history in eastern medicine – Indian and Chinese medicine – where it was used for its medicinal property. The beans from the tree were used for medicinal properties – that’s like thousands of years old, right? This tree is in the Ayurveda, like the original Ayurvedic texts of India. More recently, last three decades, it’s been used for reforestation – these degraded lands – that’s why it’s so abundantly planted, for example, in India. These degraded lands, they put pongamia trees and other trees on that land to restore them. So, absolutely, desertification and degradation of agriculture land is a huge problem. There’s some crazy stat that we lose, like a football field of land every minute or something like that. It’s a huge opportunity to not only kind of recover that land, Ross, but to make food on it.”

24:15 – “Meandering through Europe for a very long, almost year-long, study abroad. I turned 21, living in the country of Togo, for a long summer working for the US State Department and had a few different projects…one of them was to just drive around up country, different parts of the area and take a look at typically USAID funded projects that were around agriculture. And in a way, it brought me back to my childhood, while I was born and raised here in the US literally every summer from birth until the age of 16, I spent the summer in India. And, you kind of start to see, you build this juxtaposition of what’s happening in the developed world and then what’s happening in the developing world. You see a lot of agriculture happening in a very different way. I remember being pretty struck in particular in West Africa by the fact that in certain of these projects, they were growing corn and soy and they don’t eat corn and soy in West Africa, but you grow corn and soy because you could do it all on one field and it’s like currency, right? Somebody will buy that corn and soy from you, you get paid for that, then you can go buy your cucumbers or your petroleum oil for your scooter or whatever have you. Even back then it struck me as like, something’s wrong about this. Like, they’re not even growing the food they eat, they’re growing something else that they can sell, that they can buy what they want.”

26:18 – “I’d never worked at a professional business job but I’d worked in government jobs, I worked for my US congressman, I worked for the state Department and everybody I talked to in government said, ‘You ought to go work in the private sector. A kid like you that wants to do good, private sector companies are thinking more about how to do good in the world.’ And so having never really worked in a private sector company, I got a job as a management consultant, which was a thing you could do in the late nineties as a person with a French degree. And, I ended up working in different industries, different roles in different industries and learning a little bit more about the fundamentals of business and, in my natural interest, which I can elaborate on, gravitated toward the nature based part of the world of commerce than some of the human capital intensive parts of the world of commerce so that’s how I got going in agriculture.”

28:14 – “There was a civil war in Sierra Leone and the peace talks were happening in the country of Togo. And so that’s kind of why I was interested in being in the country with the US State Department at that time, because my thesis was around the Rwanda genocide…along the way, my studies, and then some unfortunate things that happened in my personal life in my twenties…really kind of etched on my brain this idea that you only have one life…When I decided to go back to grad school to get my MBA, I very deliberately picked a school where I thought would have a strong natural resources bent: UC Berkeley. And I don’t know, like, I just kind of saw a lot of my classmates going after very traditional jobs at investment banks and in management consulting firms again. And this idea came across my plate; it connected a lot of pieces for me in my own personal journey. Just made me be like, ‘Well, let me just give this thing a shot.’”

29:26 – “I gave myself three months…because I have no income coming in here, right? You go to grad school, business school, you expect to come out and be making real money. Three months, three months, three months, eventually about a year in, I had a couple of older, wiser co-founders that were mentoring me and I submitted into a business plan competition the idea of Terviva – like fundamentally what we do right now. And we won a big prize. We won like this one hundred thousand dollar prize and we didn’t even have bank account. So like the actual ‘Go’ moment here was the fact that we got this prize and we’re like, ‘Are we going to cash this check? We need a bank account, we need to incorporate.’ So that was the real jump off the bridge moment.”

32:33 – “Two things happened, very specifically when I was 22, a good friend of mine, also 22, took his own life unexpectedly. Which is tough, you know, Actually we were seniors and I think I was 21 actually, about to turn 22. We were seniors in college and it was a total surprise. And when I was 27, what I call like my cousin-brother, somebody super close to me in my life, top five person in my life, he also took his own life. Totally unrelated. So 22, 27. And when it happens the first time, it’s hard to make sense of it, right? You struggle with it. I struggled with it. I went some therapy to understand it. When it happens the second time, I mean, I’m not saying you forget the first time, but you never forget the second time. It just etches into your mind that the human condition is super fragile, whether it’s our own state of mind or just the fact that we could go at any time. And I still feel this way. It’s a weird thing, but if you want to appreciate life, death is a good way of appreciating life, right? And I still think about it to this day. If I’m probably known for one thing among my colleagues, it’s a sort of a generally positive attitude. It’s not that I’m positive, it’s that I don’t forget that death could be around the corner.”

“If it’s hard for me sometimes, how hard must it be for people less privileged than me?”

*34:35 – (Ross) “It just shocks me that more intelligent people and people of privilege don’t seem to recognize this or at least publicly admit it. You recognize that you had great parents, that you grew up in a good life. I did, too. And even though there were things that could have been better about my childhood and yours and anybody else’s, I’m sure, generally I was very lucky to be born where I was in this country and with what I had and to have opportunities that were available to me. And some days, despite all of the good things that I have, you wake up and you’re stressed or I feel a tightness in my chest, or I feel I don’t want to do this thing. Some days, especially when you’re on your own as an entrepreneur, things aren’t working out or even like, ‘Oh, I’m not growing as fast as I’d like, or people aren’t responding.’ Like there’s these things that stress us out and can make us have a bad day. And it’s hard for all of us sometimes. I’m just shocked that more privileged and smart people don’t recognize just this one thought. ‘If it’s hard for me sometimes, how hard must it be for people less privileged than me?’” 

36:28 – “I think the essence of what you described, this idea of empathy and openness to your own condition and others. I actually think that’s the essence of innovation in many respects – this idea that  I have had it good and I should do something with the fact that I had it good, I think is the essence of innovation. I think many entrepreneurs that I know in this space have come from a similar background. Come from that idea of ‘I’ve had it good, I’ve had these good things handed to me – why not try to do something for others?’ That’s the first thing. The second thing is I would kind of almost lament, I think in the last – again, kind of going back to the tech thing, and I’m not like a ludite, right? I have no argument with Elon Musk and his coterie, right but the modern manifestation of the entrepreneur is like this psychotic, crazy, intense person – in some dimensions, like a Musk or a Zuckerberg, right? I don’t think that’s the essence of innovation. I think that’s getting all the press. I think the essence of innovation is what you said, which is empathy.”

39:20 – [On lucky circumstances that helped Terviva grow] “As we were beginning to build out the company, it just so happened that one of the few places in the US where this tree grows, Florida, was experiencing a collapse in a million acre tree crop called citrus. Everybody has images of Florida and like golden globes of oranges everywhere. Well, they used to have a million acres of citrus like 15 years ago; they’re down to about 300,000 because of a disease that’s eliminated the crop. So here I am with a new crop at scale, and it already grows there a little bit, for a collapsing tree farming community. So that’s a huge piece of luck. Then we’re able to actually de-bitter – I mean, these beans have been around forever – we’re able to actually de-bitter these beans. And we have a lot of intellectual property around how we do that but I will tell you, it’s not that complicated. It shocks me that nobody else figured this out by accident, 500 years ago. So we’ve got that element. And then, another fact is that it takes a long time to create a supply of these beans. You plant these trees, but like all these trends are in our favor. Like suddenly plant-based foods, suddenly consumers will eat things that they’ve never heard about before in their lives. Suddenly carbon credits and environmental markets are so – we’ve had so much luck in building this company, right?”

“Is it luck or is it supposed to be?”

*40:40 – “You start to wonder like, is it luck or is it supposed to be? And again, I’m not like super religious, but it does take on this sort of spiritual element. I’ll share a quick story. I’ve got a daughter, my daughter Shivani, she’s now 10 years old, but when she was like three, maybe, this movie Moana came out. It’s a pretty famous Disney movie. So the quick gist of this movie is that the ocean chooses this little girl for a mission. And so I’m walking in Oakland where I live with my daughter when she’s like three or four and she loves the movie. She’s obsessed with it. And she knows what I do in Terviva, very basically, she’s like, ‘papa plants trees,’ right? Like, that’s basically what she knows and she knows it’s a very specific tree. So she says, ‘Papa, do you know how the ocean chose Moana?’ I was like, ‘Yeah.’ And she said, ‘Did your tree choose you?’ And literally this happened, Ross. I’ve got to tell you, it’s a true story and so I think what’s made me kind of stay motivated here is that I’ve always felt like I’m in service of nature. This tree’s going to be here long after I’m gone, long after every single person in this company’s gone, right? And so will these other crops, these other community crops that can really be huge. Can we be in service of something greater here? I think that’s been pretty motivating for me.”

42:22 – (Ross) “We know that there are these tools and we know that marketing and advertising, we know that they’re very, very effective tools. We know that cigarettes and alcohol and all of these things are using them around us all the time, and we’re being manipulated in a thousand ways from the time we wake up to the time we drink our first cup of coffee. And we know that there are these tools and they’re often used for nefarious purposes by people who really don’t care about anything but making more money at all. And the question is, people who are aware of these things, and again, people like you, people like me, and you mentioned earlier the marketing campaign from Mother Nature, right? Can we market Earth? Can we do a better job of selling these things? I find that to be such a fascinating concept.”

45:13 – “We want people to be inspired by something more than just what it is, right? So you are right, Ross. We are going to follow that path of – we’ve got to play the cards that matter in the human experience, right? We’ve got to make this really sexy. We’ve got to get into the right hands of the right people that are going to make it seem sexy, right? But I hope we never forget two things. One is that we’re in service of nature so we should never perjure the purpose of how we grow this tree for what we’re selling. And the second is, the answer isn’t just pongamia. It’s got to be a lot more things than pongamia if we’re going to make change. And so we’ve got to bring everything else along.”

Have we solved climate change?

*49:43 – “Have we solved climate change? We may look back 50 years from now and say it started in this broad time period. I hope we do with the thousands of innovative companies in the food and agriculture space with all the progress we’ve made in the last two decades on renewable energy. One of the things I like to think about is we made a ton of progress on renewable energy in the last two decades and that’s not even like a consumer thing, right? Like nobody thinks about the electrons they use, but then we suddenly all care. Well, guess what? Food, we really care about food. Right? It’s a much more tangible sort of thing in the consumer experience. I actually think that, to me that means I think we could make the same progress that we made in 20 years of renewable energy or energy, we might be able to make that in half the time for food because the consumer is really latched onto this idea of eating better for the planet. Here and it’s happening in other parts of the world.”

52:07 – “One thing I’m taking from this conversation is this real crystallization of what it means to be innovative. It’s just a lot about empathy and I think the whole experience that you create on this podcast is around that kind of concept, right? Of like, being off the beaten path isn’t as crazy as you think. There’s always like a reason, a story, a journey, why people end up doing this kind of stuff. And this idea that empathy can be this really big gate you can walk through to a life of innovation in all these new and exciting sectors that are happening.”

52:48 – “I would just say ‘eat the change’ to your listeners, right? I should have probably self-described, like I am not a vegan, I’m not a vegetarian, I’m a total omnivore. And without getting more into my personal choice there, you still can eat the change. Right? You still can go out and buy those products that you see in your supermarket shelf that maybe you tried once before and you’re like ‘eh.’ But like, that’s part of it, right? That’s part of it is like buying these things and eating these things and promoting these things, in your family, in your circle of friends, do it. Do it because it’s mattering. It’s totally mattering. Like consumers are changing Walmart. Walmart’s changing Danone. Danone’s changing Terviva. Terviva is changing farming, right? That’s how it flows to the system.”

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