By Kenneth M. Scigulinsky
FORTUNE — The Internet age has brought advances in productivity, made technology available the world over and created many millionaires and billionaires. The past few decades also made cover boys of an entire generation of tech stars. Bill Gates first appeared on the cover of Time in April 1984; Steve Jobs has been on the cover of Fortune some thirteen times since 1983. Technology pioneers graced the covers of not only news, technology and business publications but also cultural magazines from Esquire to New York.
Still, as icons go, these leaders and their immediate peers have been in the limelight for an extended period of time. Technology may always captivate and magazines are right to idolize innovators. But as this generation heads into the slipstream, where is the next crop of world-changers to come from?
As a quick proxy, Fortune’s 40 Under 40 list is dominated by change agents from the same tried arenas of technology and banking. These areas captivate us, but they don’t address many of the world’s intellectual and humanitarian needs. Dr. Paul Kedrosky, who has more than fifty early-stage investments to his credit, argues that “we need them to come from agriculture, biotech or energy if this interglacial episode of widespread human habitation of this planet is to be more than fleeting.”
The September 2008 issue of National Geographic featured a story on the global need for dark, fertile soil. It quoted scientists at the International Soil Reference and Information Centre, in the Netherlands, who estimated that in 1991 alone humankind had degraded more than 7.5 million square miles of land. Our species, in other words, is rapidly trashing an area the size of the United States and Canada combined. Not surprisingly, food and agriculture might be two areas the next batch of business celebrities comes from. Providing sustainable and plentiful food to feed the growing and upwardly mobile populations of emerging markets is a huge task. But who exactly is capable of providing great ideas and transformative breakthroughs in these areas is still up for grabs.
There have been a few early pioneers who might fit the bill. Ex-hedge funders have decamped to work vast farms and some bankers relocated to upstate New York, taking their knowledge to the dairy farm. One might argue that they have left for a simpler life. But they could also represent a first wave of tinkers like Hewlett and Packard working their dreams in a Palo Alto garage. When asked to provide names of potential titans in the wings, Kedrosky replies: “There are no names yet, and that’s the problem. We’re not one year before Netscape; we’re ten years before.”
Dow Jones recently quoted Jim Farrell, president and CEO of Farmers National Company, in a piece about farmland as an investment, saying “non-operating landowners own nearly half of the farmland in the Midwest, many of whom like its rental income and increased land valuations.” Hello Moore’s Law! How valuable would that land be if the acreage output could be doubled every two years? If and when Wall Street senses such advances, expect a John Deere to become the next status symbol in the third carport.
Unfortunately it’s not only farmland that the world needs. As the developing world improves its living standard, diets will need to improve as well, argues Jim Geisler COO and CFO CreoSalus, a Louisville, Kentucky-based life sciences Company. Geisler’s company is developing a family of drugs for swine and cattle that better regulate heat (or menstrual) cycles. Reducing the time and expense associated with animal reproduction lowers food costs. He views this as a challenge to bring down the price point of food. He feels that no matter where you call home, “You should be entitled to a good diet.” (Geisler might know a thing or two about efficiency: he was the former co-CFO of United Technologies, one of the best performing DOW components over the past 10 year.)
As Kedrosky says, things are still very early in the “feed the world” cycle. But these food jocks might just be what the business world needs. The general population could certainly use a few dream makers that don’t issue from the banking world. Technology was once viewed as an undeveloped Wild West. Now, a group of teenagers heading off to 4H club in Iowa could be the next Bill Gates and Paul Allen. Twenty years from now, they may even have a ticket to be on a national magazine cover.
Kenneth M. Scigulinsky is a financial professional at Virtus Investment Partners in Hartford, CT. In the past he has worked for EDS, IBM and has been involved in the financial services industry in numerous roles for the past eight years. He is a graduate of the University of Rhode Island.