The Roots of Success

By Dennis Boone

A small Kansas start up leverages the power of innovation to achieve results that will help feed the growing appetite of a hungry world

The earliest evidence for domesticated wheat—at the dawn of mankind’s Agricultural Revolution—dates to around 9800 B.C. There’s no evidence, however, to let us know whether early farmers of the Pre-Pottery Neolithic A period were having trouble with fertilizer uptake.

If they were, think about what a difference a single Larry Sanders could have made 12,000 years ago. As it is, he’s leaving his stamp on modern agriculture with his company, SFP, the Leawood-based maker of polymer-based products that improve crop usage of two key nutrients—phosphorus and nitrogen. Founded in 1998 as Specialty Fertilizer Products, the company didn’t have a product on the market until 2004, and in less than a decade has gone from zero to $69 million in annual revenues, with sales in every state and six other nations.

The company’s prosperity is exactly what officials had in mind more than a decade ago, when they began pushing a life-sciences foundation for the Kansas City region. Sanders’ timing put him in business before angel investors were looking to this area for innovation, even in an area where the economy is inextricably linked to agriculture.

But after securing angel funding in the early years, Sanders and his team have produced spectacular results, with total sales of nearly $300 million since the company’s first product, AVAIL, hit the market in 2004. It was breakthrough technology, using polymers to break chemical bonds that tied phosphorus ions to other metals, preventing their absorption and use by plants.

The same type of approach to nitrogen uptake yielded NutriSphere-N, which entered the market in 2007. Combined, the two products rocketed SFP into the start-up stratosphere. Less than five years after recording its first sales, SFP’s revenues surpassed $33 million. That was in 2008, and they’ve doubled since, thanks in part to a third product, More-Than-Manure, which reduces ammonia content of live-stock waste and—again—allows for greater efficiency in plant growth.

Result: Greater crop yields, more profitability for farmers, less run-off from the fields into the nation’s waterways.  And SFP is just getting started.

“Now we’ve applied those same polymers and other polymers to efficiency factors for pesticides and insecticides,” Sanders says. “We can take some insecticides at a 1-x rate and use a .20, or 20 percent rate, and do the same thing as with a 100 percent rate. So we’re all about efficiency, increasing the efficiency of materials that farmers use to increase their bottom line and bring them more yield and more profit at the end of the year.”

In many ways, it couldn’t have come at a better time. Social scientists project that the world will have an additional 2 billion mouths to feed by mid-century, and agricultural authorities say the United States is in an exceptional position to meet that demand. One reason for that is because the nation is a global leader in innovations that produce not just more food, but more food that’s safer, with fewer ill effects on the environment.

“As the owner of a company, I see nothing but opportunities—that’s my job,” Sanders says. “With the products that we have that help farmers use chemicals more efficiently and effectively, and bring value to their bottom line, our biggest challenge is education.”

Far beyond just showing farmers how those products work, he says, SFP and those operating at innovation’s cutting edge must make sure the consumers know that their food is both nutritious and safe. “That’s our product and our challenge in this industry.”

The vision for the company sprang not just from his roots on a farm in east Texas, but his education. After graduating earning his bachelor’s degree in agronomy—cum laude—at Northeast Louisiana University, he attended the University of Arkansas, earning a master’s in soil chemistry and his doctorate in soil fertility-plant nutrition. Before launching SFP, he worked for American Plant Food and the Potash & Phosphate Institute. He also saw what agricultural inefficiency looked like in the Third World, working as a consultant for the Rockefeller Foundation in Bangladesh and Indonesia, as well as teaching in India, Sri Lanka, China and Canada.

The cliché among college and pro athletes holds that individual achievements are nice, but team success is paramount. That holds true for Sanders, but SFP has brought home the business equivalents of Heisman trophies, Cy Young awards and Super Bowl rings. In its short history, SFP has earned a No. 1 spot on Ingram’s Corporate Report 100 list of the Kansas City region’s fastest-growing companies (in 2009, as well as a No. 3 spot in 2010), earned Inc. magazine’s No. 1 ranking among America’s fastest-growing manufacturing firms (2009), and been recognized by trade journals as having the most outstanding product of the year.

Part of SFP’s success lies with Sanders’ ability to forge strategic partnerships, both on the research end and in business operations. SFP product research has taken place at 28 universities—including the University of Missouri and Kansas State—and seven other organizations provide third-party research efforts. The company also has five U.S. distributors, in addition to the organizations that distribute its products in six other countries.

But at its heart, SFP’s success is grounded in its ability to improve on the natural laws of plant chemistry. Basically, Mother Nature is not an efficiency expert when it comes to certain nutrients, and farmers applying high-priced fertilizers see the vast majority of some literally going into the river.

“As we go to a higher global population, we’ll use more fertilizers to grow more crops. How can we ever operate any business with a 75 percent loss?” Sanders asks. “You’re operating at a 25 percent efficiency. That’s what we do with phosphate. It’s universal, it’s all over the world. You put out 100 pounds of phosphate, and maybe get 25 pounds’ use. Maybe you only get 5 pounds use. It’s a huge economic loss. It’s also a huge environmental loss as we look at how agriculture effects the environment. So there are lots of opportunities for our company and other companies to contribute to this.”