The explosion of startup companies focused on many different aspects of agriculture has created new opportunities for innovators. But what about established companies serving farmers? Turns out they have an opportunity, too, provided they invest some of their own cash. That’s the idea behind a new investment arm started by ag-focused FMC.
The new operation is called FMC Ventures, and its aim is to look at opportunities in this burgeoning space to see what might fit the company’s own corporate mission in agriculture. “If you look at the emerging technologies in genomics, synthetic biology, or artificial intelligence, molecular discover and robotics, the rate of innovation is astonishing,” says Amar Singh, FMC Ventures managing director. “Our mission is to identify and evaluate companies that are relevant to FMC, then opportunistically invest in those that can be a competitive advantage.”
FMC has evolved into a pure-play ag company, and that focus has management looking at a range of opportunities. That lineup of startup firms in ag offers potential opportunities.
Singh is no newcomer to the ag space. He’s worked for Cavallo Ventures, the venture capital arm of Wilbur-Ellis; and co-founded Maumee Ventures at The Andersons, exploring new ventures and opportunities. He explains that the know-how he brings to FMC is in identifying these startups and opportunistically investing in those with a “relevant overlap with what we’re doing.”
A key area of opportunity FMC sees is biological products. This is a burgeoning area of science populated not only by startups, but also major crop protection companies that have made significant investments in this area.
FMC Ventures’ first portfolio investment is in Trace Genomics, which has operations in Burlingame, Calif., and Ames, Iowa. The company uses proprietary DNA technology to explore the microorganism populations in soil, which can be key to opening new opportunities in plant health and productivity. But Singh notes another potential, saying “We’re assessing how soil biology insights can be used to accelerate the adoption of biological products.”
The in-depth assay technology Trace Genomics provides can help better identify the proof of the presence and activity of a biological product in the soil. This is valuable information for a farmer skeptical about whether that new product is present and working, Singh explains.
“Having that information handy at the right time will be helpful in overcoming objections to biological products,” he adds.
Singh explains that there’s high interest in a range of tools for the future, from biopesticides to precision ag tools. For example, the company recently launched its Arc farm intelligence tool designed for precision insect management.
But there are more opportunities — from enhancing discovery of new products to using artificial intelligence in new ways. Biological products will be a key focus. “We know there are machine learning platforms that have [been] proven to discover new molecules in biopharma applications; how can we use the same technology in agriculture and reduce the time it takes to bring a product to the market?” he asks.
It’s a question the new venture capital group will ask going forward as it looks to other opportunities. Trace Genomics is just the first.
An AI investment
Though not related directly to its venture investment arm, FMC did announce added tech news recently. The company is entering a collaboration with Cyclica Inc., a biotech company that uses artificial intelligence and biophysics to accelerate discovery of new crop protection chemistry.
This is one of the first of what FMC management is calling “several new technology collaborations and approaches” that the company is pursuing to expand its research of novel active ingredients.
In its release, Kathleen Shelton, vice president and chief technology officer, FMC, notes that the company has 25 promising new molecules in the pipeline. “Discovering a new molecule with the right efficacy, mode of action and sustainability profile is a complex, multiyear process requiring hundreds of researchers testing tens of thousands of compounds annually,” she says.
Using Cyclica’s proprietary platforms, the aim is to optimize that molecule search and development process, and perhaps speed discovery of new crop protection tools for the farm.