“These scientists are rockstars,” Dan Watkins, managing director at Mercury Fund, tells AgFunderNews.
Watkins is talking about the co-founders of Benson Hill Biosystems, the biotech company that is developing crop traits to improve crop productivity through photosynethis. Self-named The Photosynthesis Company, Benson Hill recently raised $7.3 million in Series A funding from a group of venture capital funds, including Mercury. The company is an alumnus of Biogenerator, the St Louis accelerator and investor, and pitched at the 2013 Ag Innovation Showcase.
Benson’s co-founders, Tom Brutnell and Todd Mockler, are both faculty members of the Donald Danforth Plant Science Center, where research for Benson Hill’s platform, PSKbase, began. PSKbase is a computational and systems biology-based platform that helps Benson Hill developers to prioritize the screening of specific genes, traits and pathways; this is in contrast to many biotech firms that take a quantity over quality approach, according to Matt Crisp, chief executive and co-founder.
“We are able to make very intelligent, hypothesis-driven decisions about what to put in the plants to really enrich our pipeline without having to go for quantity,” Crisp tells AgFunderNews.
This ability to improve the pace of discovery and implementation was hugely appealing to investors, alongside Benson Hill’s relationship with the Danforth Center, according to Mercury’s Watkins.
The traits business has also established strategic commercial arrangements with large agribusinesses such as Brazilian sugarcane giant Centro de Tecnologia Canavieira (CTC) and Limagrain, one of the world’s largest seed companies, presenting another big draw for investors.
“The management team has done a terrific job for creating strategic relationships, more than we ever see for an early stage company, making it look more like a Series B company,” Watkins tells AgFunderNews.
These relationships not only create revenue for Benson Hill, but an established platform for testing its technology, which spans several crop types.
Mercury, which invested out of its $105 million Fund III, invested alongside Middleland Capital, the agtech-focused VC which led the round. Prelude Ventures, Prolog Ventures, Alexandria Venture Investments, Cultivation Capital, and TechAccel were other new investors. Existing investors Biogenerator, the accelerator and investment firm based in St Louis, and Missouri Technology Corporation also joined the round.
This is the second round of funding for Benson Hill, which raised $2.4 million in seed funding in the aftermath of the Ag Innovation Showcase in St Louis in September 2013. Benson Hill was selected to pitch at the event, adding to the business’s credibility and validation, says Crisp. And the company went on to raise the majority of its seed round from Missouri-based investors.
Benson Hill will use the funding to develop PSKbase further, hire new staff members for R&D — the team is currently 16 full time and 23 in total after increasing 50 percent in 12 months — and support additional field trials. Job openings at the company can be found here.
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