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Ag Biotech Startups: Hi Fidelity Genetics & PlantResponse Raise Venture Funding Totaling $15.4m

December 13, 2018

Startups are using biotechnologies to provide farmers with new tools to improve the efficiency of their operations. Dubbed Ag Biotech, this category applies to all technologies used on the farm involving biological or chemical processes. It is a broad category involving many different types of technology and science, including breeding, genetics, microbiome research, synthetic chemistry, and animal health.

This week, two startups using different biotechnological approaches to improve the efficiency of row crop farming, raised venture capital funding totaling $15.4 million.

Spanish company PlantResponse manufactures inputs to help plants handle stresses and use nutrients more efficiency including organic-certified products, and Hi Fidelity Genetics uses computational biology to measure and predict plant traits for advanced breeding programs. HFG says it has developed new non-GMO corn hybrids that are competitive with current commercial seed.

Hi Fidelity Genetics, which was co-founded by a partner at its founding investor Finistere Ventures, has closed a $8.5 million Series A with co-lead investor Fall Line Capital, the farmland and agtech investor. Gro Alliance, KdT Ventures, Prairie Crest Capital, S2G, and Tom Farms.

With the funding, HFG will accelerate development of RootTracker, a scalable in-field root architecture sensor system for breeding more robust root systems, and Luther, its end-to-end artificial intelligence (AI) breeding platform with what the company describes as the first prediction engine for hybrid seed creation.

Madrid-based PlantResponse held a $6.9 million first close on its Series B investment. Yara Germinate, the corporate venture capital fund of fertilizer business Yara, and early-stage venture firm iSelect Fund joined existing investors Bayer Ventures (formerly Monsanto Growth Ventures), Middleland Capital, and Novozymes in this round.

The new funds will be used to help PlantResponse set up its new commercial headquarters in North Carolina’s Research Triangle Park, as well as building out its R&D team and agronomic trial network.

The agrobiological company focuses on identifying and developing new molecules and traits that regulate plant responses to biotic and abiotic stresses. It currently has three core products in its portfolio that can be used with specialty crops and row crops alike. Largely derived from plant innate immunity, the products help plants with overall health, stress mitigation, and nutrient management. These products are designed to integrate with farmers’ existing input protocols to boost production.

“Yara Germinate is very forward thinking and we have some good nutrient applications, so to get a strategic investor from the nutrient side was a big benefit,” PlantResponse CEO Tom Snipes told AgFunderNews. “Also, the network that Middleland Capital provided us and the introductions they made were incredibly helpful. Europe is not as robust a venture capital network. There are only a handful of funds focused on agtech.”

During the fundraising process, Snipes and PlantResponse spoke with a number of US venture capital funds that have started exploring funding opportunities outside of the US. Although this creates some challenges when it comes to educating investors about a new region and helping them wade through uncertain waters, Snipes believes it’s a positive indication of a more robust ecosystem being cultivated in Europe.

Peculiar Agtech

“The agtech ecosystem is in a rather peculiar place–there is not a lot of early-stage investment happening, as many investors seem to be waiting until companies have much more established revenues,” Scott Horner, managing director of Middleland Capital told  AgFunderNews. “However, we are seeing excellent deal flow with companies that have been self-funded or bootstrapped by their founders. We love these sorts of deals, as the founders have significant skin in the game, their valuations are realistic, and they are hungry to move their businesses forward.”

“Middleland has been looking at opportunities outside the US since our first fund in 2009, so we are comfortable with it and know what we don’t know. It takes time and patience to build trusted contacts and syndicates, and there is significant nuance in dealing with ex-US management teams and investors and board of director members,” he added.

PlantResponse plans to complete the second close as early as January 2019, which will provide them with a couple years or runway, according to Snipes. It began commercial sales this year and has planned a North American launch by 2020, which will start adding revenue to the capital equation.

“We have a good model built on a lot of academic collaboration across Europe consisting of structured agreements with EU academies that are focused on agtech,” explained Snipes. “But we have many more opportunities that we struggle to find the bandwidth to review at this point.”

Co-founded in 2008 by two researchers, PlantResponse is a spinoff from Spain’s Universidad Politécnica. It’s core technology targets plant genes that improve the productivity and health of specific crop species, the researchers have found a way to boost the plant’s resistance to pathogens and multiple types of water-induced stresses.

“For this new area of crop inputs, we are not looking to replace nutrients. If you look at plants, the basic laws of agronomics say that plants need NPK (nitrogen, phosphorous, and potassium), so we are not breaking these rules. We are just saying that we have a product that can help a plant do more with what’s available in the environment,” explains Snipes.

To cultivate its consumer market, PlantResponse has relied on many of the traditional ag retailer distribution channels. Europe’s more fragmented market and country-specific regulations have required a more blended approach. And while there are a number of ag biotech startups developing a wide range of products for growers, Snipes does not feel competitive pressure.

“When you get more on the nutrient side of the business, there are a lot of solutions that aren’t based on science that create a stigma. So we really do think that for our phosphate and stress products it’s hard to say who our competitors are. There’s some interesting tech specific to water management, but what we do is more overall stress management. It’s not specific to how the plant uses water.”

PlantResponse completed a $6.6 million Series A led by Monsanto Growth ventures with participation from Middeland Capital in December 2015.

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