Jul 6, 2020 - Technology

How agriculture brought a tech exec from Silicon Valley to Omaha

Mark Johnson. Photo: GrainBridge
Mark Johnson. Photo: GrainBridge

In 2011, Mark Johnson sold his startup Zite to CNN for $20 million (it was later acquired by Flipboard). Three years later, he moved to New Mexico, where he ran Descartes Labs, which makes sense of satellite imagery. In May, Johnson made another big move — relocating to Omaha to run GrainBridge, an agriculture tech company that is a joint venture between Cargill and ADM.

Why it matters: Tech is seen as vitally important for the global agriculture industry, which faces the stresses of climate change and predictions of a significant increase in food demand with roughly the same amount of land devoted to farming.

How it works: GrainBridge's software helps farmers figure out the best time to sell their crops. With crop prices in constant flux, farmers' timing of their sales is critical to their bottom lines.

What they're saying: Johnson said he became fascinated by agriculture during his time at Descartes Labs.

  • "We did a lot of work on understanding sustainability from space, looking at global crop productions, trying to understand demand factors, and understanding global shipping," Johnson told Axios. "If we're going to both feed a growing population and do so more sustainably over the next few decades, technology is key."

The big picture: Johnson notes that while many U.S. farms are multimillion-dollar businesses, few have the sophisticated software tools they need. And, he said, that challenge is compounded by a trade war with China and supply chain disruptions brought on by COVID-19.

As for Omaha, Johnson said he continues to believe there are lots of places outside of Silicon Valley that are filled with talent.

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