At 12, when her peers were fawning over puppies, Jordan Lambert, Venture Lab Associate at Flagship Pioneering and Innovation Team Associate at Indigo, was focused on the family fistula cow—an invaluable addition to a herd that numbered 6,000 by the time she left home in Colorado for California.“Fistula means ‘window’ in Latin; it means literally putting a portal in the side of a cow, surgically, so that you can get to the rumen. I actually helped the vet place the fistula. My job was to hand him the anesthesia, and the scalpel, as he’s opening up this cow to place the rubber portal inside it.” The purpose of this procedure is, as Jordan explains, to gain access to the rumen juice—a cocktail teeming with microorganisms that combat disease and allow for the digestion of cellulose.
Jordan’s expression lights up as she talks. Her innate curiosity is infectious, and it's clear that her sense of wonder at the natural world has been a constant throughout her childhood, college, and career. And yet for Jordan, it seems scientific experiments were never quite as ordinary as lightning bugs in a bottle. Microbes in a mason jar, more like.
"I wanted rumen bugs in a bottle...you get to look at it [the rumen juice] under a microscope. And it’s like looking at a jewelry box of bacteria: If it’s a good microscope, you can see a little bit of red, and a lot of gold, and a lot of green. It's just enchanting.”
ON LINKEDIN, YOU HAVE A MANTRA THAT CAUGHT MY EYE:“MY MISSION IS TO APPLY THE SCIENTIFIC METHOD, BUSINESS PRINCIPLES, AND A PRACTICE OF EMPATHY TO CREATE TRANSFORMATIONAL PRODUCTS AND SERVICES THAT PEOPLE TREASURE.” WHAT INSPIRED THIS PHILOSOPHY?
I grew up on a dairy farm, so science and business have always been intertwined for me, but the empathy piece actually comes from having cancer in my twenties. When I was a kid, my parents were dedicated to continuously learning about the biology of our cows—they need to know about the nutrients they need, the medicines they need, and how to manage their reproductive health. They also had to manage profitability, working capital, and the teams that get work done on the dairy. Because of my love of science, I chose to study plant genetics at UC Davis, and after that I worked at Arcadia Biosciences where we were creating rice varieties that could withstand salt and drought stress. While I was there, I realized that while I loved the scientific part of my job, I was really driven to understand the business of science holistically, so I got my MBA at Harvard Business School.
But between all of that—my junior year in college—I had lymphoma. I was going to graduate on time, everything looked good…and then ‘whap!’ Diagnosed with cancer. I had chemo, and radiation, and the whole nine yards…and it was terrible. But that was where that comment on empathy really came from. Until that experience, I didn’t understand how important it is for the providers of any service—whether it’s healthcare or agricultural technology—to understand the pain and joy of the people they are trying to serve.
Until that experience, I didn’t understand how important it is for the providers of any service—whether it’s healthcare or agricultural technology—to understand the pain and joy of the people they are trying to serve.
The thing that I love most about Indigo is that it blends business, science, and human-centered design: everything we’re doing here is about the farmer, and the consumer, and the environment
THE INNOVATION TEAM IS ONE OF THE MOST UNIQUE AT INDIGO. WHAT WAS ITS GENESIS, WHAT ARE ITS LONG-TERM GOALS?
The genesis of the Innovation team is Geoff von Maltzahn, the scientific founder of Indigo and a partner at Flagship Pioneering. Our goal is to continually expand the scope of Indigo to maximally empower our growers, our consumers, and the environment with a fundamentally better future for farming.
Agriculture has undergone tremendous shifts over the last 50 years, and that pace is about to increase. By this time next year, our team plans to have vetted hundreds of technologies that can provide additional benefits to farmers through the Indigo model. We are doing this partly by innovating in a broad range of new areas, spanning microbiomes to novel sensors to machine learning. We are also creating relationships with external technology providers so that they can better access agricultural markets through Indigo’s commercial model—offering external innovators a faster path to market, and our farmers the ability to more quickly adopt new solutions. We believe the combination offers the potential to dramatically accelerate the rate that new innovations that benefit of farmer profitability, environmental sustainability, and consumer health can reach Indigo’s farmers.
ARGUABLY NO TWO DAYS ARE THE SAME AT INDIGO, BUT IF YOU HAD TO CHARACTERIZE YOUR TYPICAL WORKDAY, WHERE WOULD YOU START?
I start every day by strategizing with my counterpart on the Innovation Team, Jon Hennek, about what needs to be accomplished that day, then we split up to go collaborate on special projects with teams in R&D, Data, and Commercial. Right now, we’re really focused on Indigo Partners, a program designed to evaluate and accelerate the adoption of cutting-edge technologies in agriculture, so we also spend a lot of time talking to world-class professors, industry experts, and high-tech companies about their work to see how we can integrate the best science and technology into Indigo’s offering.
IF YOU COULD CHOOSE ONE INNOVATION IN AGRICULTURE TO PURSUE, WHAT WOULD IT BE?
Water use efficiency—we need to change the paradigm on that. We can’t make more land and we can’t make more water. We have what we have, and I think so much of what Indigo can do, and already has done, is change the equation with agricultural water use within the microclimates present in every field. Right now, precision agriculture is about the contours of the field, and I think we can get more granular; I want personalized agriculture that delivers water at the plant level. Maybe one day we can get to the microbe level…
WHAT'S YOUR "SPIRIT CROP"?
Definitely corn! I don’t know that it describes my personality or anything, but my deepest, fondest memory of childhood is hanging out with my dad in his muddy irrigation truck.
My dad was an innovator in agriculture, and being an innovator is hard because innovative things seldom work right the first time they’re tried. Most of agriculture, when you do irrigation—especially for corn, especially in Colorado—you have a center pivot irrigation system. This means that when you have a square field with a circular water distribution, so you’re not able to irrigate the corners and you lose a lot of yield. We had this unproductive rectangular shaped field that wasn’t reaching its full potential because we couldn’t water most of it, so my dad bought a linear sprinkler that rolled down the rectangular field, sucking water up out of ditch that ran parallel to the long end of the field. It was the first in all of Morgan County! But this thing broke all the time. One day, the thing had had kinked itself in half and when it kinks like that, it runs over the corn, so we had to stop it. And I just remember running through the corn carrying the end of the ladder while he carried the front. My boots kept getting stuck in the mud, and we were drenched in sweat and the corn leaves were slapping me in the face.
But we fixed it. And… it was beautiful in there: It was this really special green light that gets filtered through the leaves, and it was like a whole, quiet world in there.
So that’s why it’s corn.
Photo courtesy of Dana Farber