Equinom, an Israeli startup using computational biology to breed crops with improved characteristics without any genetic manipulation, has raised $4 million in a bridge funding round. Roquette, a global plant-based ingredients company, and Fortissimo Capital, the leading Israel private equity fund, invested in the startup ahead of a targeted $15 million Series B round.
Equinom is currently focusing on improving the protein content of legume crops such as peas to answer increasing global demand for plant proteins. It will be commercializing crops with 35% to 55% more protein compared to commercial varieties by 2021, according to founder and CEO Gil Shalev.
Equinom uses proprietary software, algorithms, and data science to identify the genes responsible for certain traits in a crop, with a focus on traits that are controlled by multiple genes. Genetic modification and gene editing can only manipulate single genes, which restricts the traits they can impact, according to Shalev.
“Our technology gives us the ability to discover the various genomic regions that control crop traits and then select the best combinations for cross-breeding to improve characteristics such as higher protein, higher yield without compromising on others. “By running millions of genomic combinations in silica, we have the ability to design the best optimized genetic code to get the best product across traits,” he said.
Shalev says Equinom’s non-GMO or gene editing approach will give its crops a clean label globally. “There’s nothing wrong with those technologies, but we see the benefit of Equinom having a clean label,” he said.
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Shalev founded Equinom in 2012 after four years working at Vinmoran where he was in charge of bringing new technologies to tomato breeding. As the cost of genetic sequencing technologies came down, Shalev realized the potential new breeding technologies could have on the business, but their implementation would require a change in breeding methodology; an impossible task at a large corporation like Vinmoran that is used to its way of working over several years.
“I realized it would be better to leave and try to do it by myself, especially as the reduction in costs meant I didn’t need a big company to use these technologies,” he told AgFunderNews.
The business was founded on two principles, building the company’s technology stack and breeding methodology — both of which are part of Equinom’s secret sauce — as well as developing a crop breeding business. Actually breeding and growing the crops sets Equinom apart from other breeding startups that just focus on commercializing the technology, according to Shalev.
“We are using our technology to breed new crops and will sell the seed; this will give us the credibility that our technology is superior to others,” he said. Royalties from the sale of seeds will also provide a major revenue stream for the startup. It’s first commercialized crops is sesame, where it has bred the crop to be suitable for mechanical harvest — before now, sesame pods break open if they’re not manually harvested — as well as higher yielding. Sesame is a $8 billion global market, and Shalev estimates Equinom will be able to capture 5% to 10% of it.
The company is now focusing on legumes, starting with peas, to answer globally increased demand for plant proteins, and wants to optimize them to grow with greater protein content but also improved protein quality.
“Firstly consumers want plant proteins, but then they will ask if it can replace animal protein, which currently it cannot; Equinom has the ability to change the quality of plant proteins,” said Shalev.
Shalev says Equinom will be commercializing crops with 35% to 55% more protein compared to commercial varieties today by 2021.
Equinom will use the funding to build its database — or gene bank — of legume crop seeds to give it the ability, via machine learning, to more accurately discover the relevant genomic regions of different species depending on discoveries made in others.
New investor Roquette will invest in breeding programs as well as the company. The credibility and reputation of partnering with Roquette, in a deal that took nearly two years, validates Equinom’s technology and execution strategy, according to Shalev.