The Food and Agriculture Organization projects that nearly 670 million people will still be facing hunger in 2030, suggesting that food production must be increased by 70% in the next 35 years to feed the world’s growing population. To face this challenge, exacerbated by degradation from climate change and biodiversity loss, contemporary agriculture will need sustainable crops with higher yields, improved nutritional content and lower natural resources requirements. In this situation, genetically modified crops stand out not only for tackling food insecurity and malnutrition, but also with other applications like producing clean energy or mitigating the effects of climate change. In this article, we highlight five agritech startups that align with some of the latest trends in the genetically modified crops industry.
What are genetically modified crops?
Genetically modified crops are plants whose genome has been modified by genetic engineering techniques such as transgenesis or gene editing. Transgenic crops faced public scepticism and regulatory hurdles when developed in the late 90s, but the growing confidence in agri-food biotechnology seems to be turning this around. Indeed, they have become increasingly accepted as a viable solution to many of the challenges facing agriculture today, although the future of agriculture relies on gene-edited crops. In the last decade, the emergence of CRISPR as a revolutionary technology for simple and precise genome editing has opened a wide range of new applications for these plants, from biofuels or drugs production to phytoremediation (use of plants to clean up contaminated soils, water or air). With more advances around the corner, the shift from traditional to gene-edited crops seems unstoppable.
Controversy of genetic modification in agriculture and future perspectives
The scientific community acknowledges the importance of addressing concerns related to genetically modified crops and promoting transparency and responsible practises in agricultural biotechnology. Releasing any new living being into the environment always carries a certain risk, which is taken into account by regulatory agencies, who assess the benefits and risks of each crop on a case-by-case basis. GMO crops do not harm the environment just because they are genetically modified, it is intensive farming practises that do so. As for their food safety, no adverse effects on human health have yet been demonstrated after more than 20 years of continuous consumption, which has been confirmed by numerous studies. In any case, a clear distinction must always be made between transgenic and gene-edited crops, which European legislation (Directive 2001/18/EC) does not do, blocking the sowing of many plants. This outdated regulatory framework is expected to be modified in the coming years, so unblocking restrictions in Europe will make genetically modified crops become an even more integral part of global agriculture. Crop innovation offers great potential for the creation of more sustainable crops and agriculture.
Our selection of GMO startups working on sustainable crops
The following inspirational examples provide a good general sense of the trends in the agritech industry and the potential benefits of GMO for the environment. It has not been easy to make a selection, as promising GMO startups are emerging every month, which shows the level of development in this field. Our choices range from companies focused on the development of technologies like artificial intelligence and bioengineering to others focused on having a direct impact in creating a more sustainable world by tackling climate change and biofuels.
Living Carbon: Photosynthesis enhanced trees for carbon sequestration
Living Carbon is working to remove carbon from the atmosphere to fight climate change. Its genetically modified poplars incorporate a photosynthesis enhancing trait that helps them grow faster and bigger. As a result, they accumulate up to 50% more biomass and capture 27% more carbon than unmodified trees, optimizing land-use efficiency. This Californian startup was the winner of the Good Tech Awards 2022 by The New York Times. Last January, they raised an additional $21M for their Series A led by Temasek that they will use to plant millions of trees in the United States. Their objective is to have more than four million seedlings in the ground by the early spring of 2024.
Avalo: Accelerating crop evolution with machine learning
Avalo is an American startup, focused on accelerating natural crop evolution with its genome prediction algorithm. This AI tool simulates the effects of changes in a plant’s genome and selects the most promising gene combinations, thus improving accuracy and speeding up gene discovery. They are currently focused on using their machine learning algorithm to support predictive breeding and accelerate the development of climate-resilient crops. Avalo joined SOSV as part of its IndieBio Accelerator program (March 2021) and was a finalist of the Roddenberry Foundation Awards 2023 for early-stage ventures supporting the United Nations' SDGs.
Phytoform: Artificial intelligence for precision gene editing
Phytoform has built a crop breeding process that uses artificial intelligence and genome editing to discover and implement novel traits. Its in-house developed AI platform, called CRE.AI.TIVE, is designed to identify variations in DNA sequences which affect gene expression. Once the platform identifies the targets, the British startup uses CRISPR technology to tune gene expression up, down or off. In 2021, they received $5.7M in a seed round led by Eniac Ventures to scale up their artificial intelligence genome editing technology and bring to market their first tomato variety engineered to reduce losses during and post harvest.
Plastomics: Increased gene expression with chloroplast transformation
Plastomics is a Saint Louis based startup that has developed a novel chloroplast transformation technology. Rather than relying on nuclear transformation, their bioengineering technology is designed to deliver traits to chloroplasts. This approach enables greater expression of improved properties, which can be focused on withstanding the pressure of weeds, diseases and pests or enhancing other new value-added traits. In 2020, they received a Small Business Innovation Research grant from the National Science Foundation and earned a spot in the Wells Fargo Innovation Incubator. In 2021, they teamed up with Evogene and Amfora to test their technology and raised $7.1M of Series A venture funding in a round led by Lewis & Clark AgriFood. The company has been managed since last September by Tania Seger, a former Bayer Crop Science executive.
Phycobloom: Biofuels from genetically modified algae
Phycobloom is genetically engineering the next generation of algae to produce a sustainable and commercially viable biofuel. These algae secrete large amounts of oil that form a layer on the surface of the water that can easily be removed. Their main advantage is that the oil does not need to be extracted from the algae, so they can stay alive and produce oil continuously. Phycobloom was founded in London in 2019 and has raised little money until now, most of it from angel investors. Its founders were selected last year to be part of the fellowship cohorts of Breakthrough Energy, the climate organization founded by Bill Gates.
Investing in sustainable crops
The market for genetically modified crops is expected to grow significantly in the coming years, and new GMO startups are constantly emerging. With advances in gene editing and biotechnology, the future applications of these crops are unlimited, especially in the production of high-value-added compounds using plants as biofactories. Seen as a promising solution to address global challenges, they are attracting huge amounts of both private and public money, such as China's acquisition of Syngenta for $43 billion in 2017.
If you are interested in GMO or agritech in general, feel free to contact us. We help clients with market mapping and deal sourcing projects in this area. A good deal sourcing process can help increase your deal flow and enable you to efficiently identify the most promising companies. You can also read our blog on proactive scouting strategies to learn more.