AgTech: Shaun Holt Of Alveo Technologies On The New Technologies That Are Revolutionizing Agriculture

An Interview With Martita Mestey

Martita Mestey
Authority Magazine
15 min readSep 10, 2023

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Discover, align, and keep influential people and mentors in your life. I can look back at everyone in my life that has had a positive influence on me and my career and tell you exactly why and how. Most of those individuals I remain in distant contact with or talk to on nearly a daily basis. I will never forget and always be thankful for those that have helped me get to where I am today. I just hope that I was able to benefit those individuals along the way as much as they did for me.

The agriculture industry is undergoing rapid transformation as innovative technologies are being developed and implemented, from precision agriculture to vertical farming, and beyond. In this series, we are speaking to leaders, innovators, and experts in the agtech space who are playing a pivotal role in shaping the future of agriculture. We aim to explore the latest developments, discuss the challenges and opportunities that these technologies present, and showcase the impact of agtech on the industry as a whole. As a part of this series, I had the pleasure of interviewing Shaun Holt.

Shaun Holt is the Chief Executive Officer of Alveo Technologies, Inc. He brings more than 20 years of operational and financial leadership experience across several technology and life sciences companies, from start-ups to large-capitalization companies. In addition to his role at Alveo, Shaun is an advisor to Celesta Capital, a venture capital firm that focuses on deep tech, and serves on the Board of Directors of Prellis Biologics. Previously, Shaun served as chief operating officer of Atonarp, Inc., a Celesta Capital-backed optical and mass-spectrometry instrumentation company, and, prior to Atonarp, as chief financial officer for Berkeley Lights, Inc. (now PhenomeX). At Berkeley Lights, Shaun led the digital cell biology company through its $205 million initial public offering. In addition, Shaun held numerous finance leadership positions during his seven-year tenure at Illumina throughout its exponential growth phase.

Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you. Can you tell us a bit about how you grew up?

I was born and raised in a relatively small farming and agriculture town in California’s Central Valley. My parents were very hard working, made a modest living, and poured everything they had and made into my brother and me. To this day, I give them all the credit for what I have become, and I imagine my younger brother feels the same. I was heavily into athletics growing up and tried to perfect my craft in everything I set out to do, whether that was shooting a basketball, pitching and hitting a baseball, or throwing a football. I worked the nightshift and weekends nearly full-time at a cheese factory to put myself through college where I studied business finance. My parents taught me the value of hard work by example, and that principle has stuck with me today. It is engrained in who I am as an executive, husband, and father of three girls. Hard work and my deep desire to make an impact on the world has given me the drive and passion to relentlessly pursue all the goals I have set in life. A large part of my family were farmers in the Central Valley, and so I have a great deal of exposure (and hands-on experience!) in the agriculture space, which makes it all the more interesting for me in terms of what we are looking to accomplish here at Alveo.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began your career?

So many to choose from, because interesting stories are almost a daily occurrence working in innovative early-stage start-ups! I think the most interesting, though, was my time at Illumina. Illumina is what set my personal career path and sparked my interest in biotech and healthcare. This was also a period when private equity and venture capital started to really pour into life sciences tools and diagnostics companies, which has subsequently spurred so much innovation that has substantially increased our healthcare access, diagnosis and treatment capabilities. The company has made such an enormous impact on improving healthcare globally, and it is so great to have played a role in growing what has become such a revolutionary biotechnology company.

The personal and career growth I experienced there was invaluable. The culture was very energizing — it didn’t feel like you were actually working — and the company was led by amazing leaders across every function, many of whom I still consider mentors and friends. The company moved very fast and dealt with so much (acquisitions, spinouts, hostile takeover attempts, exponential growth and expansion, the high-flying stock price, competing technologies, etc.), it was a crash-course in business, and I soaked up every minute of it. I still find myself often drawing on my experiences from Illumina, applying everything I learned about how to grow a great business, create a great culture, and relentlessly pursue great products that can really make a difference in the world.

You are a successful leader. Which three character traits do you think were most instrumental to your success? Can you please share a story or example for each?

  1. Hard work, a passion for the work I do, and the difference it makes. There is a reason why CFOs are only willing to do one IPO in their career. It is hard. The sacrifices made to build a finance organization from scratch and ultimately take that company through an IPO was intense, to say the least, but so rewarding at the same time.
  2. Taking risks and capitalizing on opportunities. Jumping from tech to biotech and landing at Illumina back in 2008 before they became a sequencing powerhouse was a pretty big risk. I knew nothing about biology — it was all so foreign to me. It’s funny looking back now, I have been involved in some pretty remarkable companies that have enabled this bio convergence we are seeing, where innovative technologies and biology have combined to form the ‘century of biology’ that we’re in right now. From sequencing to single cell genomics, to synthetically created organoids for drug discovery, to advanced molecular sensors like we have here at Alveo. Truly amazing and fortunate to be going through this in the prime of my career.
  3. Equal amounts of ‘book smarts’ and ‘street smarts’. I am as intuitive as I am intellectual. I value people, especially the superpowers they bring to the table. I have been fortunate to have learned from amazing leaders throughout my entire career, and I can honestly say that I have added to my personal toolbox/skillset every positive leadership or communication trait from every manager I have ever had. I also can find and retain great leaders because I know what great is, having worked with, and for, so many great people.

Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?

One of our most exciting projects in agriculture is a paradigm-shifting test for Avian bird flu. Our platform will enable operators who raise chickens, ducks, geese, and other poultry to detect Avian Bird flu in minutes, anywhere, at any time. It will enable the local/regional/global coordination of test results to better manage the current avian influenza pandemic within poultry and help prevent its spread to other mammals and potentially humans. This specific platform use case can have a broad global impact.

What I am even more excited about is making Alveo’s platform universally accessible. We want to bring molecular diagnostics to everyone who needs it and enable testing at the point of need, where a diagnosis can be most impactful, and outcomes significantly improved. It’s a consistent theme across all markets we are pursuing from human IVD (in-vitro diagnostics) to agriculture, farming, food safety, etc. — early diagnosis can positively impact health outcomes, improve yield, save time, and reduce costs across all non-human applications.

We have partnerships established that can solve specific problems in a discrete country, region, territory, or with a specific issue that may be prevalent within a bioindustrial process. We can do all these things because our platform is portable, rugged, and reusable. Plus, it can multiplex, and provide extremely accurate results, all while being cost effective.

Ok super. Thank you for all that. Let’s now shift to the main focus of our interview. How did you become involved in AgTech, and why does it matter to you?

For me personally, it’s about applying and using technology to solve the world’s toughest challenges. Early in my career I was struck by the question, “If you knew you could not fail, what world problem would you solve?” I love the question and discuss it all the time with friends and family. It can lead us to actions that become important components of solutions to very big challenges.

When I joined Alveo, I asked the same question again to my team. How could we use our technology to make the greatest impact? Alveo’s be.well solution started life as a medical testing device. We have a great COVID-19 test solution on the market with a host of other offerings under development. I’ve pushed the company to expand our focus and explore unmet needs beyond human applications. Early on, we received enthusiastic engagement from AgTech companies that were frustrated by the antiquated, slow and expensive tests currently on the market to determine whether crops or livestock have an infectious disease. If I’m a farmer, I don’t want to ship samples of my precious crop to a faraway lab using 17th Century technology (US mail) and wait days for results. In this day and age, we should be “importing” the latest proven technologies from other industries to solve agriculture’s biggest problems. So, I have been partly drawn into AgTech because of Alveo’s ability to solve the need for easy, mobile, and rapid testing in the field, where it’s needed.

What are the most transformative technologies currently in use in AgTech, and how are they revolutionizing the industry?

IoT and Automation. When these technologies are properly implemented, activities can be tracked and integrated. One great example that jumps to mind is precision farming, which has led to self-driving tractors, harvesters, sprayers, planters, drones for crop monitoring and surveillance, smart watering, and a whole host of other use cases.

With some bias, I’ll add that literally “in field” testing for pathogens holds the promise of enhanced crop protection and expanded crop yields. When you can take the power of lab-based molecular tests and deliver them to farmers in a rugged, easy-to-use form factor, you have the opportunity to revolutionize how we think about farming. Instead of waiting for symptoms to appear and damage to set in, simple surveillance testing can be done to stay ahead of disease and infection. Farmers will be able to detect disease early, apply a measured number of expensive fungicides, and avoid needless losses.

How do these technologies contribute to sustainable agriculture practices and the fight against climate change?

I love this question. The United Nations has identified Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) which are a collection of seventeen objectives that serve as a “shared blueprint for peace and prosperity for people and the planet, now and into the future.” I’m proud and excited that Alveo is working on projects that advance three of these focus areas: zero hunger; good health and well-being; and clean water and sanitation. I’ll dive into two of our many partnerships to explain the connection.

The first is our partnership with the country of Barbados with the strong support and involvement of their Prime Minister Mia Motley (a co-chair of the SDG Committee). We are collaborating on an “in region, for region” project to train Barbadian scientists on the design and creation of LAMP assays for our be.well molecular testing platform. We are hosting the first Barbadian Ph.D. scientist this fall at our headquarters in California, where he’ll develop tests specifically for the needs of Barbados (with an eye then to manufacturing and exporting our test cartridges to the rest of the Caribbean and the world). A possible use case that still needs to be finalized is the testing of various funguses that afflict sweet potato plants, which is a strategic crop for Barbados. We’ll be able to test in the field before symptoms appear and provide guidance on proper fungicides which will increase the yield and availability of an important food source. The trained scientist will then return to Barbados in the spring with the ability to develop other tests for crops and animals that are of importance to the Caribbean.

A second example is our work with Professor Werner of Newcastle University in the United Kingdom. 2.2 billion people lack safely managed drinking water and 3.2% of deaths globally are attributed to unsafe water caused by poor sanitation and hygiene. With his “Lab in a Suitcase,” Prof Werner is on the forefront of addressing these problems by taking advanced water testing modalities out of central labs and into low-infrastructure environments; testing can be done where it is needed, when it is needed. Our be.well platform is small, mobile, rugged and fantastically sensitive. As a component of Prof. Werner’s Suitcase solution, we will deliver easier and faster testing in a much smaller footprint. And beyond this, our vision is to offer a test kit for the most important water pathogens that is even more accessible — in size, ease-of-use and eventually cost — to further enable clean water and sanitation.

Finally, I would be remiss if I didn’t share that the markets our partners help us address will open huge revenue and volume potential for Alveo’s be.well platform. Our open platform partnering approach allows us to work with subject matter experts who develop new tests for unmet needs. This allows us to scale fast and develop a library of tests for unmet needs, which solves some of the globe’s thorniest problems, and returns outsized returns to our investors.

Alveo’s be.well platform overcomes the systemic environmentally un-friendly factors inherent in many of today’s systems. Our cartridges are small and are designed to have minimal biological-, electronic- and hard-waste components. Furthermore, most testing today requires samples to be shipped from the site of sample acquisition to a testing lab. Shipping alone is a significant contributor to greenhouse gases. Our system completely eliminates the need for shipping samples around the globe and is energy- as well as waste-efficient.

What are the challenges in integrating these technologies with existing farming practices?

Operationally, agriculture can be slow to change. Like many, producers are challenged with lots of work (often time sensitive) and not enough time. These producers are constantly faced with a full basket of promises that new technologies will bring. Evaluating and bringing on new technologies takes time. Science has been slow to penetrate agriculture in part because the farm environment requires that we deliver new technology solutions in durable and rugged form-factor to ensure it is effective. Accurate microbiological testing, such as DNA amplification for pathogen detection, is a good example of this phenomenon. PCR technology is best applied in the lab environment away from the farm.

Finding early adopters to prove out the value of any given new technology is key. So, I’m happy to report that we have and continue to find partners who recognize the value our technology brings to their operations, are excited about the speed, accuracy, ease of use and ruggedness of our platform and are committed to adopting it to meet their specific needs.

What emerging technologies do you see as having the potential to disrupt the AgTech industry in the next 5–10 years?

Imaging: Automated imaging of crops and livestock and the automated interpretation of those images is revolutionizing agriculture, enabling farmers to predict the “hot carcass weight” (sellable cuts) of a cow to understanding soil moisture status and detecting crop pathogens in the field very early.

Data analytics combined with genomics: Plant and animal breeding programs are increasingly able to accurately predict performance of a crop field or livestock animal’s performance at very early stages of growth.

Another major theme across all of agriculture is integrating the multiple data streams that affect any given operation into a single understandable and informative system. And, in addition to the imaging and data tools used to develop insights for improving yields, better diagnostic tests such as be.well will bring cutting edge science to the point-of-need to enable faster and more targeted action, improving efficiency and output. Our platform’s wireless connectivity gives users an advantage because they can easily integrate test results into their farm management systems. It will be interesting to see what other tools will follow from other innovators in the AgTech space and the impact they will have.

What kind of policy changes would be beneficial for the growth of the AgTech industry?

The regulations around genetic improvement methodologies, like genome editing, are evolving, and there is a movement to improve global coordination of regulatory policies. The same principle applies to agricultural diagnostics tools. While the regulatory requirements for diagnostics tool providers working in agricultural is generally lighter than it is for diagnostics aimed at human use, it is highly variable from country to country. Coordinating these requirements without compromising safety or efficacy would facilitate getting more tools into more places to better serve the agriculture industry.

What advice would you give to someone looking to start a career in AgTech?

Find your passion. Understand and develop your skills and abilities. Focus your efforts at the intersection of your passion and your skill. You will be more successful, add more value to any company/institution, be more satisfied with you work and ultimately contribute more to making the world a better place. There are endless opportunities in agriculture to live out this philosophy.

Ok, thank you. Here is the main question of our interview. What are the “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started” and why?

1 . Get ready for a roller coaster ride. If you work at and invest in start-ups like I do, there are extreme highs and lows. One day you may close a big deal or launch an amazing product, then weeks later find yourself solving technical or personnel challenges. There may be times when you are months, weeks or even days to your company being out of cash. Being able to navigate (stomach?) the ups and downs is important to the company, but also to your health and wellbeing. You need to compartmentalize everything, or you will drive yourself (and team) absolutely crazy!

2 . Don’t get sucked into corporate politics. It’s poor form, detrimental to company culture, and capital inefficient. And it definitely doesn’t contribute to the main goals of an organization. Politics do not move the business forward — they stall productivity and sometimes even reward the unproductive. Focus on building and driving real value, perfecting your craft, expanding your capabilities and horizons, aligning yourself with the right people and managers, and loving what you do. You will feel fulfilled, enjoying your work and the impact it is having, and your manager will love (and promote!) you. You’ll look back on your career and accomplishments knowing that hard work and being value add paved the way for success, however you define that.

3 . The titles and money will come, but later… I have always been ambitious and driven to climb the corporate ladder quickly. I probably could have been more patient, but I have never been shy about asking for what always seemed like a long overdue promotion or raise. I always asked to take on new challenges and opportunities. One of the most fulfilling was an expat assignment I took on, moving my family to Cambridge, UK for 2 years, to run a team out there. What an amazing experience and massive launching pad for my career that was. In the end, I have always loved the work I’ve done, in every job I’ve had. That made it easy to want to do more.

4 . Discover, align, and keep influential people and mentors in your life. I can look back at everyone in my life that has had a positive influence on me and my career and tell you exactly why and how. Most of those individuals I remain in distant contact with or talk to on nearly a daily basis. I will never forget and always be thankful for those that have helped me get to where I am today. I just hope that I was able to benefit those individuals along the way as much as they did for me.

5 . Business cycles are real — prepare for them: Capitalize on the opportunities as they present themselves. I love economics and have studied both Keynsian and Austrian economic theory as sort of a hobby over the last 15 years or so. Like it or not, the way our economy works with interest rates, monetary supply, debt, and so on create boom and bust cycles. Understanding them and why they happen, will help you prepare for ‘busts’ and capitalize on the ‘booms’.

You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. :-)

I think giving back to society, in any capacity you can, to help any cause that can benefit from the resources you have to offer, can really drive positive change. It doesn’t have to be monetary. It can be your time, your house, your network, your muscle — whatever! If everyone gave a little, I think the world would be in a much better place. Much less divided.

I also think that is ultimately why I love what we are doing here at Alveo so much, and why our team is so passionate about the mission. We want our molecular diagnostics platform to be universally accessible, where it’s needed most. Molecular diagnostics is not a new concept, but until Alveo it has been largely inaccessible, particularly in developing nations where it’s either too costly or big corporations simply do not focus their efforts there. At Alveo, we are doing things differently. We are driving universal access of our platform to benefit outcomes for all. The opportunity to play a global role in helping achieve food security, promote sustainable agriculture, ensure availability and sustainable management of water and sanitation, and improve healthcare access is what motivates us here at Alveo Technologies.

How can our readers further follow your work online?

Connect with me personally on LinkedIn!

https://www.linkedin.com/in/shaun-h-389b171/

You can follow Alveo Technologies LinkedIn as well:
https://www.linkedin.com/company/alveo-technologies

And be sure to check out our website:
https://www.alveotechnologies.com/

This was very inspiring and informative. Thank you so much for the time you spent with this interview!

Thank you for the opportunity!

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