Agriculture is probably the first and still one of the broadest playgrounds for biotechnology innovation. From early grafting in China more than 4000 years ago to modern day GMOs, biotech has modeled nature and what can be extracted from it to our liking, providing us with more copious and better crops, controlled and amiable environments, and higher food quality.
But with ever decreasing natural resources and an ever increasing population, biotechnology has a lot of catching up to do in the field of giving back to nature. Systems biology and synthetic biology approaches might be just what we need to give the next step in both sustainable agriculture, preservation of natural resources and bioremediation. What are the biggest opportunities and challenges that our discipline will face in this aspect in the years to come? These panels of experts will be discussing the subject on our upcoming SynBioBeta San Francisco 2016
Aurora Equity invests in early stage start-ups across a broad range of technologies. The firm has been led since 2002 by Dr. Jaleh Daie, Managing Partner and Board Director. Dr. Daie’s list of accomplishments is humbling, to say the least: from the WITI Hall of Fame to being the first woman appointed to the board of directors of the U.S Space Foundation to serving in the administration of three Presidents, Dr. Jaleh Daie has been recognized globally as an expert and pioneer in agriculture, biotechnology and investment. Investment-wise, Dr. Daie’s, Aurora Equity has had a considerable amount of big hits, including a company that was recently purchased by Swiss fermentation pioneer Evolva.
When asked about the future of agriculture, Dr. Daie is optimistic. “The convergence of Synbio and analytics has started a new Renaissance in food and agtech, unfolding of which will result in significant reduction in inputs, minimal waste, entirely new products, and unprecedented customization at all levels.”
Caribou Biosciences is a pioneer in the development of CRISPR-Cas 9 technologies for genome engineering. The company focuses on 4 priority markets: therapeutics, biological research, industrial biotechnology and, of course, agricultural biotechnology. In this area, Caribou is working in precision breeding strategies as a way of accelerating the generation of new, desirable traits in crops, such as drought tolerance, disease resistance and increased yield.
Barely a month back, Caribou announced Vonnie Estes had joined their Company as Group Leader, Agricultural and Industrial Biotechnology. Ms. Estes brings decades of experience in the field and was appointed to lead the company’s partnership and business development activities in the sector. Her view on the interaction between synthetic biology and agriculture highlights the importance of synbio tools as enablers for a better future: “There has been exponential growth in technology that has lead us to the ability to fully exploit gene editing. First was next gen sequencing and the ability to read the genome. Then came genome synthesis and the ability to write the genome. With general use of these, we are now able to fully exploit gene editing. CRISPR Cas9 is an easy and cheap system that is now in the hands of many scientists to improve crops. We have gone from a few companies controlling crop improvement through genetic manipulation to technologies that can be used by all plant breeders. The speed and cost of synbio will allow us make changes to crops previously too small for the investment. And to develop traits that excite consumers, respond to climate change and help feed developing countries.”
Dow Agrosciences’ mission is to support sustainable food production – all the way from the field to the dinner table. Dow’s recent partnerships in synthetic biology encompass TeselaGen, Radiant Genomics and Synthace. The common denominator: developing solutions for farmers in crop protection as a way to advance agriculture.
Dow’s grassroots approach looks to empower farmers and ranchers, “understanding their needs today and anticipating their needs tomorrow so we that we can provide the right technology at the right time” as stated in their website. In order to drive scientific research towards these user-driven solutions, a robust staff of scientists are working in the intersection between biotech and agriculture. Among them is Steve Evans. Since joining Dow AgroSciences, Steve has been involved in the development of several traits stemming from the Mycogen pipeline and in capability development in bioanalytical sciences. Evans is also a past chair of the Industrial Advisory Board of the SynBERC synthetic biology consortium funded by the NSF, and co-chair of the BIO Organization IES synthetic biology subteam.
AgBiome wants to use new knowledge of plant microbiome to create innovative products for agriculture. Through the company’s proprietary platform, Genesis™: Gene and Strain Identification System, AgBiome efficiently captures and screens the most diverse and unique microbial collection for agriculturally relevant applications. The company has compiled the world’s largest collection of fully-sequenced and annotated microbes from the crop microbiome, and is now screening this collection in order to discover new biologicals and trait genes.
Eric Ward, Co-CEO of AgBiome, will be present to discuss the company’s microbiome focus in agriculture. Dr. Ward He has worked in the agricultural biotech industry for 25 years, most recently serving as president of the Two Blades Foundation, a nonprofit dedicated to promoting the development of durable disease resistance in crops. Prior to that he was CEO and a co-founder of Cropsolution, Inc., an agricultural chemical discovery company focused on novel fungicides.
The session will be moderated by Dr. Ganesh Kishore, CEO of the Malaysian Life Science Capital Fund (MLSCF) and co-founder of Spruce Capital Partners. As an investor in the area, Dr. Kishore has found considerable challenges, ranging from a mismatch between the entrepreneur’s’ aspirations and the enterprise’s’ objectives and needs to the market itself and its whims. And of course, there is the financial aspect of it. “If it is just about a science project,” says Dr. Kishore, “we can generally do that well. However, converting the fruits of that scientific endeavor into products and services requires significant ‘scale-up’ investment. This scale-up is ‘risky’. If financial markets are risk averse many interesting technologies will wither on the vine.”
Even if the prospects might seem bleary, Dr. Kishore trusts that synthetic biology has still a lot to give back to agriculture, and that’s an opportunity that cannot be missed. “The current generation of synthetic biology capabilities are not only improving our ability to leverage biotech traits, but also fine-tune endogenous traits for more consistent crop production, reduction of chemical inputs, and produce food that is both nutritious and delicious. […] If we couple this with newer farming techniques such as vertical farming, aqua and aeroponics, enclosed farms on roof tops or in boxes, I have to believe that it creates a situation where affordable and sustainable nourishment of all people is a reality and not a pipe dream! […] Not only this is addressing what is at the center of the plate but also on the sides that promotes a state of wellness in humans – on every occasion – breakfast, lunch, snacks and dinner. It is an imperative to minimize diseases of lifestyle and reduce our burgeoning health expenditure while enhancing the quality of life for all.”
“We have a great panel – from biome to editing genes and genomes – I hope the panelists vividly demonstrate that much of what I have said here is happening and society should expect to see these products now or in the near future. Stay tuned!”
Join us on Wednesday October 5th at SynBioBeta San Francisco 2016: Opportunities and Challenges in Agriculture.