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InnerPlant founder Shely Aronov
InnerPlant founder and CEO Shely Aronov. Image credit: InnerPlant

Meet the founder: InnerPlant’s Shely Aronov on recoding plant DNA to improve crop health

November 8, 2021

Around 20% of farmers’ crops in the US are destroyed each harvest by pests and diseases. Plants naturally emit chemical signals when they are attacked in this way, but humans have no simple way of picking up on them. Instead, we spray entire fields with pesticide or fungicide, potentially causing damage to the environment.

When Shely Aronov co-founded InnerPlant with Rod Kumimoto in 2018, she saw an opportunity to improve crop health management by making plants’ natural distress signals visible to farmers immediately.

InnerPlant’s seed technology “recodes” a plant’s DNA to create a fluorescent protein that lights up the plant’s leaves when it is in distress from pests, fungi, and other dangers. Viewed using technology such as field equipment, drones, or even satellites, these illuminations can alert farmers to a problem before it spreads to the entire field.

The company’s InnerTomato product is already available while InnerSoy, and a product focused on cotton, are in the works. 

In August, InnerPlant launched InnerCircle. Farmers in the InnerCircle network contribute feedback as well as their own individual knowledge to InnerPlant’s ongoing research and product development. The group launched with 50 founding members who are trying out the company’s products in their own ag operations.   

The Davis, California-based company raised $6.5 million in pre-seed funding earlier this year. Read on to learn more from Aronov (SA).

AFN: In more detail, how does InnerPlant’s technology work, and why it is beneficial to farmers?

SA: The idea is to make the knowledge the plants have accessible to farmers, and the way we do it is with genetic traits. That’s what the encoding means.

Plants have an immune system reaction that gets activated at the emergence of stress like fungus or inefficient water supply. We then enable the plants to generate a protein in their leaves alongside that biological reaction. And that protein happens to create an optical signal that’s unique and doesn’t natively occur, that we can see […] in the field.

Once you embed this in the seed, you can seamlessly transform your field into data. ANd this does two things: it reduces losses to pathogens, increasing yields by identifying early on what the stressors are and [enabling] precise applications where needed. And then the second thing is just about eliminating the unnecessary use of chemicals.

One of the things that’s really fun with the [farmer] community is that they keep bringing up all of the “I don’t know what happens” situations. There are all these situations in this super complex environment where we just don’t know. [InnerPlant] will be a layer of information that farmers can access to be able to better understand what’s going on where.

AFN: Where did the idea to launch InnerCircle come from? 

SA: With InnerPlant, from the beginning we’ve always been very focused on talking to farmers and figuring out how to design the right product for them, something that will fit their economical and operational needs. And then a few months ago as we were thinking about it, we thought it’s time to grow this feedback loop and essentially institutionalize the way that we communicate with farmers. That was the idea behind InnerCircle.

It is a community of farmers that are working with us to innovate, design, and define the future of seed technology. We started defining this as, “Let’s think about the future of agriculture, let’s think about the problems that you still want to solve.” Then we wanted to bring together a community of the right farmers or the biggest group of farmers that want to support this, partners that are interested in helping this ecosystem and providing solutions for the future. Then we [needed to] identify what are the right technologies and products that we can help bring to market to solve the problems of tomorrow versus the problems of yesterday.

AFN: What are some of those really pressing problems farmers have specifically called out?

SA: What we don’t talk about enough is resistance traits, traits that we’ve had in the field for 25 years. They’re failing fast. And farmers are well aware of that. There are so many resistant weeds, even though they’re getting stacks of more herbicides [and] they’re putting more herbicides in the field. But then the problem is just getting worse. And the need for BT [Bacillus thuringiensis] is creating the need for more BT traits. And on top of that, the [US Environmental Protection Agency] is proposing increasing the refuge.

So the farmers are aware that the technologies that they’re so dependent on are not heading in the right direction. And it’s a question of not if, but when. [Farmers] understand that in the future, we’re gonna probably transition from the one-size-fits-all acre to every plant, and by doing that you can unlock a lot of the different benefits for them.

There’s also commodity prices fluctuating [and] increases in the input prices every time they have a good year. Last year it was the fact that they couldn’t get soybeans on time. There’s so many things that they need to address and these problems are just perpetuating themselves year after year.

AFN: What is the criteria for joining InnerCircle?

SA: I want everyone to join. Obviously the people that join early are very innovative, usually on the soybean boards and associations and the ones that adopt things very rapidly. But we’ve just had some farmers join — that maybe are not the earliest adopters — through a partnership that we’re going to announce soon.

You don’t want to only design for the early adopters. You want to make sure that this is going to suit everyone’s needs and solve all their problems. So our approach is: Let’s go as wide as possible. Obviously [we need] soybean and cotton farmers, the crops do matter, we need people that are within our crops of development. But other than that, I want to have many opinions heard. And we’re going to be communicating with our members a lot through different forums and bringing up topics and questions and things that they want to discuss so we can understand how to serve them better

AFN: Back to InnerPlant, have you met with resistance or concerns about the genetic modification aspect of what you are doing?

SA: If you look at the dynamics of the industry, our goal is to bring more regenerative practices, holistic practices into the 95% of acres [that] happen to be GMO, for soybeans, for corn, for cotton. So a crop that’s GMO already tends to stay GMO. We want to go to those farmers and find a way for them to have more efficient operations that [are] better for the world. 

After doing this for three-and-a-half years, it does feel like the sentiment is changing. It used to be this big question three years ago. And then every year it just becomes more and more that the problem is pesticides and the fact that our system is not sustainable, [and] it’s probably not resilient. It’s not going to last that long in the way we’re doing it today. As a consequence of that, [people] talk less and less about genetic engineering.

I think what consumers want is something that’s better for the world. Impossible Burger has made that really clear, that people will buy something that’s clearly GMO as long as it’s better for the world and not necessarily just for them personally. It’s about, “how do we use these traits in an environmentally sustainable way?” The technology is not the problem, but the way we’ve used it is part of the problem.

AFN: What other crops do you have in the works?

We do focus more on the crops than the industry. The reason we decided to go after cotton instead of corn as the second crop is that it’s considered non-GMO, so the regulatory process is really rapid. Also, there’s so much need for innovation in cotton, and for more competition. And especially in markets like India, for example, apparently the farmers there still use very old genetics that require a nine-month growing season and harvesting by hand. It’s a terrible, terrible job that people don’t want to do anymore. There’s just so much need for better seeds in that industry that I found it very compelling as an industry to go after.

I don’t know when, but we do have this idea of creating a traceable cotton. If you start tracking everything in the field, you could validate that things are being done more sustainably, and that’s such an important thing for [fashion and apparel] brands. They could then tell their customers that these are sustainable cottons. So I think there’s a big opportunity to connect consumers to the field there. More than with soybeans, since most of the soybeans don’t get consumed by people – so it’s harder to make that connection.

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