Reports from GFFC

Alltech CEO has focus on startups, future-proofing the business

By Richard Whitehead

- Last updated on GMT

© GettyImages/sam_ding
© GettyImages/sam_ding

Related tags: Insect protein, Asia, Latin America, accelerator, China

'The transformations we have been seeing are overwhelming,' said Mark Lyons, president and chief executive of Alltech, the Kentucky-based feed multinational.

There’s insect proteins, there’s alternative proteins coming out, there’s all sorts of challenges and there’s concerns about sustainability. But our younger staff are still really optimistic​.”

In Bangkok recently for the GFFC conference organized by IFIF, Dr Lyons has been painting a freestyling picture of what he expects to see over the next 40 years.

The pace of change is among his most steadfast preoccupation, especially when one compares the ways different countries respond to the pace of innovation and their acceptance of change. Having spent six years of his career in China, where he led the local Alltech office and focused on building bridges between his expat home and the wider, international industry, his experience there informs many of his opinions today.

You have to realize how quickly things are ​changing,” he said. “I saw that first-hand in China, where young colleagues had in the own short lifetimes seen dramatic change. What they’re anticipating now is, what’s next?​”

Each of the fast-developing economies of Asia and Latin America in particular has its own different priorities. Those, for instance, where the population is growing quickly have a different outlook to those with high incomes and health concerns, like those in the West.

I have to say, I found the Chinese four-year plan extraordinarily helpful as a businessperson​,” he continued. “You could clearly see what are the initiatives, what are the issues the government sees, and that was something I didn’t anticipate as a Westerner coming in and thinking, wow, this really helps my business​."

Future-proofing

For companies like Alltech, the priority lies in future-proofing its technology to manage changes and identify sea-changes in a data-driven landscape.

“We think there will be disruption, and one of the big disruptors is going to be our ability to use data, to make it simple enough for people too aggregate​,” he said.

I read this statistic, in the last 12 months 90% of the world’s data was produced, and so in that regard, how do we pull that in, how do we make it useful for producers, and also do we realize that’s going to bring the level of transparency that none of us have really contemplated​.”

As is en vogue​ among industry business leaders currently, Dr Lyons sees this wholesale overhaul of the industry, fraught with challenges as it is, as an “opportunity​”, but goes even further.

He says opportunities come from “any​” challenge and “any​” risk, as long as a business is willing to roll with them. Seeing these opportunities is “hard-wired into our DNA​” at Alltech, he maintains, as evidenced by the company’s embrace of new technologies through its involvement with the Pearse Lyons Accelerator.

Support for start-ups

Named after Dr Lyons’s father, the accelerator is a three-month innovation program for the top 10 leading agri-tech startups from across the world. It offers work space, mentoring and the possibility of investment, and combines Alltech’s expertise in agricultural and nutritional science with the tech ecosystem.

It’s exciting to see the level of interest in our accelerator—how much investment is coming in. But I’m a little bit concerned about where the investment is coming from​,” Dr Lyons said, referring to typical tech types from Silicon Valley who don’t understand the agri-sector.

At the same time, the accelerator has been successful in connecting with fellow feed industry companies so it can be quickly decided if the incubees’ technologies work in a real-world setting. Doing so allows the businesses to collaborate and share data.

If you can do that, you can overcome challenges​,” said Dr Lyons. ​“We always say start small, scale up—that’s something I hope will be possible so let’s try things out. They’re going to fail, but hopefully they will fail fast and keep going. That’s your startup mentality​.”

But does being at the forefront of technology innovations in the feed industry help Alltech meet the challenges the industry faces, and does that give the business first-mover advantage?

With potentially more customers who will spend more on the products Lyons’s company supplies them with, “that sounds like a really good scenario​,” he said. As consumers shift from wanting food just for calories to buying it based on quality, health, lifestyle and ethics, the companies upstream in the food chain are set to see their investments in the future pay off.

Our food will play such a huge role and it’s already entered into the mindset of consumers that if they eat a healthy diet they can enjoy better health standards​,” Dr Lyons said. “And what we can see from data is that younger people are more into this scenario​.”

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