US crop genetics startup Benson Hill has raised a $150 million Series D round co-led by UK agrifood investor Wheatsheaf and Google VC arm GV, which also led its Series C round. This round brings Benson Hill’s total funding to roughly $280 million.
The St Louis-based startup is trying to improve the properties of seeds through computational biology and traditional breeding practices. It has developed a non-GMO soybean with up to 50% more protein than currently available varieties in the hope of tapping into the plant-based alternatives market. The variety, called ‘Ultra-High Protein,’ was initially discovered by eMerge Genetics, which Benson Hill acquired in March 2019.
Earlier this year the company announced that it will start contracting with farmers to grow the beans. It has started its first round of contracts, with 30,000 acres of soybeans already in the ground, according to president, CEO, and co-founder Matt Crisp.
“We’ve been able to build out a terrific amount of data and insights across multiple crop species,” he told AFN. “We have had in the past three years a significant interest and focus on nutrition and [we’ve] invested in legumes, specifically soybean and yellow pea.”
Benson Hill will use the new funding to advance its CropOS innovation engine, explore new partner development efforts, recruit new team members, and fund the commercial launch of its first Ultra-High Protein soybeans in 2021.
There are over 83 million acres of soybeans cultivated in the US, but the vast majority are conventional seed genetics that are grown using herbicides like glyphosate. Convincing farmers that they should give up familiar methods to embark on a non-GMO growing expedition is a challenging proposition. To sweeten the deal, Benson Hill offers its contract growers support from a team of agronomists – and a nice premium.
“We are finding interest more and more in non-GMO acres, principally because we’re able to offer a material premium,” Crisp said. “Frankly, I think there’s also a realization among growers in our network that Benson Hill is spending a lot of dollars and investing in helping to form those end markets that supply them with the opportunity to take advantage of a premium category.”
It buys the beans from its contract growers in an effort at create a closed-loop system with end-to-end traceability. The hope is that this will appeal to food and ingredient companies that are increasingly pressured by consumers to be more transparent.
Crisp claims that Ultra-High Protein is more sustainable than conventional soybean varieties because it uses fewer pesticides and fertilizers, and less manpower, to grow and harvest.
Closed-loop systems like the one that Benson Hill is developing are also gaining interest, in his view.
“They provide an opportunity for the grower to enhance their profitability and the consumer to get what they want from the system,” he said. “What I am not aware of is companies that are both developing proprietary genetics and then shepherding them through the channel. At some level, I think we are uniquely positioned to execute that.”
Seed genetics remain an area of interest for a wide number of startups and corporates. Indiana-based Inari has raised around $200 million to date to develop genomic tools including gene editing to improve global seed diversity. Earlier this year, Bayer and Temasek launched a $30 million seed genetics business targeting vertical farms.
Benson Hill has also dabbled in non-soybean seeds. In 2019, it partnered with California Hemp Corporation and the University of California, Davis to breed improved cultivars of industrial hemp that are better adapted to the climate in the Golden State’s central region.