Agtech startup Phytoform Labs has raised a $5.7 million Seed round of funding to scale up its AI-based plant genome-editing platform.
Seed-stage investor Eniac Ventures led the round. Wireframe Ventures, Fine Structure Ventures, FTW Ventures, and angel investors Jeff Dean, Ian Hogarth and Rick Bernstein also participated, as did previous investors Pale Blue Dot, Refactor Capital and Backed VC.
Phytoform’s combination of machine learning and gene-editing technologies aim to address the dual problem agriculture faces nowadays: cutting down agricultural emissions, which produces up to one-third of all global emissions, while simultaneously adapting to challenges already brought about by climate change. For example, one recent study from NASA found that maize crop yields are projected to decline 24% by 2030 due to climate change. Elsewhere, scientists have predicted that pests will eat 10-25% more wheat, rice and maize across the globe for each one degree rise in climate temperature.
Phytoform’s CRE.AI.TIVE platform uses machine learning to target small changes in DNA sequences that can impact a wide variety of characteristics including plant health. Using this machine learning, the system analyzes DNA sequence combinations in plants to identify effective traits. It might identify a trait that could improve a plant’s resilience in the face of disease or the aforementioned pests. Using CRISPR gene-editing technology, Phytoform then implements these traits directly into the crop varieties.
Phytoform co-founder and CEO William Pelton tells AFN that the company’s CRISPR-based method introduces “minimal and accurate changes” without introducing foreign DNA, so that the company is not classed as a GMO. This reliance on minimal changes to get the job done is core to the Phytoform mission.
“With today’s technologies, we don’t have to use a sledgehammer when we can use a scalpel,” he says by way of illustration. “In this case, that sledgehammer is traditional breeding or conventional GMOs where you just slam in a gene in from a difference species.”
Using CRISPR-based genome-editing tech, he adds, allows them to do “very, very specific changes” and is a more efficient tool to work with, especially for plants.
“We are definitely aware of the negative sentiment that previous GMO technologies had and we’re trying to [get] consumer input into how we design our processes and how we’re going about this,” he says. “We don’t want to just force a new technology on people that will just make profit for farmers or us and neglect the environment and the end consumer.”
Potatoes and tomatoes are Phytoform’s current focus crops. The company plans to bring its first tomato variety engineered to reduce losses during and post harvest to market in 2022.
Phytoform started with these crops because they have “obvious” problems biology can fix. The company won’t delve too deeply into the technical details right now, but as an example, Pelton says one area they are working on is browning and bruising in potatoes.
“These are biological reactions that happen naturally,” he says. Unfortunately, they also render the potato completely useless in the supply chain because of the aesthetic quality standards food producers have to meet for retailers.
But reducing waste in the supply chain is not just so to help growers, Pelton adds. From an environmental standpoint, growers will need to input fewer resources into the same amount of potatoes, and with fewer chemicals or machinery.
Phytoform’s goal is to get both its tomatoes and potatoes to market within the next year.
The new funding will largely go towards accelerating Phytoform’s technology so that it can work with more crops and, importantly, getting into the actual field for testing. From there, the company can begin to tackle some of the bigger climate-related issues the world’s crops face as climate change advances.
“Our implementation technology has been developed to be scalable across a wide variety of crop species to maximise diversity in our food system,” says Pelton. “I think the future is going to be multiple crops in the same field at the same time. Hopefully that means we can accelerate new crops to market and that diversity will contribute to soil health, human health, and the environmental situation.”