Ejnar Knudsen, founder and CEO, AGR Partners

Industry Immersions Kick Off in Ag, Biotech, Energy, Tech Finance
From food and biotech startups to new organic brands and big energy markets

Looking around the diverse classroom of MBA and bioscience graduate students, UC Davis alumnus Lonnie Bookbinder B.S. 82 recognized several students who now are interning at his biotech company. As CEO and founder of ARIZ Precision Medicine, Bookbinder was the first guest lecturer in the new Biotechnology Industry Immersion course at the UC Davis Graduate School of Management.

Industry Immersions Kick Off in Ag, Biotech, Energy, Tech Finance

One of the students who works for Bookbinder’s company is in bioengineering and wants to combat diabetes, an epidemic that ARIZ has been targeting in one of its products. Another student with the company tracks cutting edge research in the gene editing technology CRISPR. Bookbinder, noting UC Davis’ leadership with women in STEM, says he hired one UC Davis MBA graduate (who was assisting him in the class) within three hours of meeting her.

Across Gallagher Hall, Russell Reid, head of investment for the Alaska Permanent Fund, posed a conundrum in alternative energy for students to solve in the Sustainable Energy Industry Immersion.

Meanwhile, the first class of the Food and Agriculture Industry Immersion kicked off with Ejnar Knudsen, CEO and founder of AGR Partners, and MBA alumnus Peter Barrick MBA 16, who directs operations for two disruptive food startups within Sonoma Brands.

 “These Immersion areas are strong at UC Davis and are also what people are really talking about,” Dean Rao Unnava said in his introduction. “We felt that the power of the university should be utilized.”

Russell Reid, CIO, Alaska Permanent Fund

Mining Big Energy Opportunities

Flying in from Alaska, Russell Reid brought a compelling, real case study for the students. He described an enormous opportunity for an untapped natural gas reserve deep in the frozen arctic, but one fraught with environmental sensitivities. Students broke into teams and strategized business plans for the real-world challenge.

For Reid, the Immersion course was a welcome return to UC Davis. While he was the chief investment officer for the California Public Employees’ Retirement System (CalPERS), he served as the Graduate School of Management’s Robert A. Fox Executive-in-Residence and taught an MBA course in 2007.

In Research Professor Nicole Biggart’s Sustainable Energy Industry Immersion, Reid spoke about his latest 10-year project, involving a new stock fund focused on some of the fastest growing economies in the world. He pointed out that most people would be lucky to work on so many big projects like this in their lifetime.

“To have someone here who’s going through these huge 10-year business projects is really inspiring,” said Sacramento MBA student Paula Avery. ­ “The knowledge we have coming into these courses is something you wouldn’t normally get within a classroom.”

Students joined the food and ag course from across disciplines.

Food and Ag: Feeding the World

In the morning session, Julie Morris, academic coordinator for the Food and Ag Industry Immersion, set the stage with the challenges facing this generation: To feed the rising global population, agriculture will need to produce 69 percent more food by 2050.

Professor Andrew Hargadon took the baton from there, explaining how agriculture has already been rapidly innovating for the last 200 years as it has raced to produce more yields for the growing planet, despite the stereotype that the field resists change.

MBA student Deborah Stewart

Guest speaker Ejnar Knudsen, founder and CEO of AGR Partners, advised the students to be careful about following the consensus too closely. Find a career you’re passionate about, he said, but do the research to find “the truth” about it.

Drawing on his decades of experience with growth investment, Knudsen said in-depth research and understanding about the science of a product can make or break a major investment and how finding that truth can lead to career windfalls. Knudsen has invested over $280 million in the last four years in food processors, manufacturers and agribusinesses.

In the afternoon, MBA alumnus Peter Barrick dug deeper into what it takes to launch a successful food business. At the food incubator Sonoma Brands, Barrick and his team simultaneously launched two companies —from idea to store shelves—within eight months, a feat that only the most nimble of food companies can pull off. He broke this accomplishment down to three simple concepts for the class: margin, cost and revenue.

Cross-disciplinary Collaboration

The Immersions are bringing executives, thought-leaders and faculty together with MBA students and graduate students from across the UC Davis campus, creating new networks and opportunities.

 Ben Powers MBA 18, who attended the Food and Ag Immersion pilot in the spring, was back because he recognizes the demand in agriculture for talent who are more business focused.

Another graduate student, researching specialty coffee and tea at UC Davis, said the Immersion courses were worth the wait: “I purposely stalled my education so I could take this class.”