Mornings are a struggle for some, but it wouldn’t be a stretch to speculate that David Weisman, Indigo’s Vice President of Data Sciences, isn’t among the slow-to-rise. At least, it’s tempting to draw this conclusion after hearing him describe his daily routine, which suggests he’s someone who springs from bed, ready to take on the weighty challenge of feeding the world—Indigo’s core mission. At one point during our conversation, David called the company’s innovative platform a “big step” for global agriculture.
Spend any amount of time around David and it quickly becomes apparent how the organization sustains such a fast-paced work environment. There’s a kind of kinetic energy to him, his enthusiasm—for computer science, biology, and agribusiness, along with other interests—infectious. What’s more, these are only his professional pursuits; as for so-called “leisure” activities, let’s just say that David doesn’t ease up on the gas pedal, approaching his preferred pastime, sailing, with the same intensity and focus that he applies to data analysis.
Q: TO START OFF, COULD YOU TELL US A LITTLE BIT ABOUT YOUR ACADEMIC AND PROFESSIONAL BACKGROUND? WHAT DREW YOU TO INDIGO?
Sure! My long-term background is in computer science and software engineering, and I began that in the 1970s. Most of my career has been in consulting.
In the late 1990s, I was consulting on a project, and a colleague showed me a landmark paper that used DNA to solve a difficult computational problem. This set me on a path of reading, because I was really blown away by this paper. I started reading undergraduate and graduate biology textbooks—molecular biology, biochemistry, genetics, systems biology—and I was thoroughly engrossed.
I attended some classes at MIT in biology to round out my understanding. I also enrolled in a biology course at UMass Boston so that I could do some real wet lab work. After a couple of years, I chose to put my life on hold and do a Ph.D. in molecular biology. Once I finished, I resumed my consulting career, but with a computational biology focus. So, for example, I consulted for a pharmaceutical firm that was testing a new cancer drug; we applied advanced machine learning to predict which patients would benefit from [it].
Geoff von Maltzahn, our founder, invited me to consult at Symbiota [Indigo’s former name]. One thing led to another, and Indigo brought me on as Vice President of Data Sciences, where I’ve been happily ever since. That was in April of 2015. It’s been tremendously rewarding to watch Indigo grow from its beginnings to this incredible company.
Q: WHAT ROLE DOES DATA SCIENCES PLAY AT INDIGO?
We always start with Indigo’s objectives to satisfy the growers' needs and to give them the very best products available.
Part of Data Sciences’ mission is to help identify microbial products to satisfy those customer needs. At the earliest stages of our Discovery pipeline, we apply machine learning and data science to meet a particular product requirement—for example, drought tolerance in cotton. To identify those microbes, we look at the microbes’ DNA sequences, the environment the microbes came from, the plants the microbes came from, and prior experimental results from related microbes. Next, we analyze all these data with machine learning algorithms. We test those predictions in our Discovery pipeline for validation. Successful microbes go on to be tested in the greenhouse and field, and we apply a feedback loop to constantly improve our predictions.
Q: COULD YOU DESCRIBE THE SORTS OF CHALLENGES THAT YOU AND YOUR TEAM FREQUENTLY CONFRONT?
Analyzing agronomic data is tremendously challenging, as complicated as working with medical or financial data. Some things are easy to measure, such as rain, temperature, light... but the plant experiences a far more complex environment. Soil chemistry and the soil microbiome make up a highly complex, nonlinear, dynamic system that shifts dramatically after a heavy rain or treatment with fertilizer. Nature is also very challenging. Sometimes you’ll see raccoons and swarms of insects feasting on the plants, adding variants to all that data. Our challenge is to capture enormous amounts of data and to make sense of it all.
Q: WHAT DO YOU FIND MOST REWARDING ABOUT THE WORK YOU DO HERE?
We have such an opportunity to enormously improve agriculture. It’s so large, the scale of what we can achieve. It’s widely projected that there won’t be enough food to feed the planet in 2050, and that really is motivational. I’ve talked to so many people who came to Indigo for these kinds of aspirational reasons. We can make large positive contributions to agriculture by applying the best data science.
Q: DATA OBVIOUSLY CAN HELP FARMERS MAKE MORE INFORMED DECISIONS AND MANAGE THEIR BUSINESSES BETTER, BUT WHEN OVERABUNDANT, DATA CAN BE DAUNTING. GIVEN THIS CHALLENGE, HOW DO YOU MAKE SURE THE INFORMATION YOU’RE GIVING GROWERS IS BOTH READILY ACCESSIBLE AND RELEVANT?
If you look at mountains of data at a fine resolution, you can’t do much. Think of measuring every leaf of every plant in a field: You’re just going to be swimming in trillions of data points. A better approach is to think of a pyramid, with large amounts of raw data at the base. The next level up is information, where you aggregate this data; you perform machine learning or statistics, and start to really understand some broader themes. Knowledge is the next level of understanding; for example, learning that a particular microbe often benefits cotton growing under specific environmental stresses. That knowledge can directly help growers. And finally, wisdom, which is knowledge accumulated over a longer period of time, enables optimal decision-making. Our objective in Data Sciences is to move broadly up this pyramid into providing knowledge and wisdom that directly benefits the growers and allows them to achieve their objectives.
Q: WHAT DO YOU LIKE TO DO OUTSIDE OF WORK?
Sailing! I’m seriously into it. I crew on sailboat races, which is incredibly challenging at the strategic, tactical, and operational levels, and it’s also just a blast because you’re out on the water with friends. I also do coastal sailing and help teach sailing at MIT.
Q: SINCE INDIGO IS ALL ABOUT FOOD AND FARMING, IS THERE A FOOD THAT YOU CAN’T GO WITHOUT?
I have fresh vegetables every day, and that’s part of my SOP [Standard Operating Procedure]. Chocolate’s really good too, but I need to have fresh vegetables every day.
Q: SO WHAT’S YOUR FAVORITE VEGETABLE THEN?
Summer tomatoes from a local farm! They’re simply one of the best things in the world.