Corporate funding announcements for agriculture-focused startups are more common than ever, but digging in on a few offers a glimpse into the new kinds of thinking happening in the industry. Recently, a Series A financing round for a crop breeding offers insight into some interesting technology.
Hi-Fidelity Genetics received $8.5 million in financing that was led by a range of investment pioneers, including an Indiana farm operation. The investors include Fall Line Capital, Finistere Ventures, Gro Alliance, KdT Ventures, Prairie Crest Capital, S2G and Tom Farms. Fall Line Capital and Finistere were the leads for this financing round.
INVESTING IN STARTUPS: Spenser Maughan, co-founder of Finistere Investments, was part of a group that recently invested in Hi-Fidelity Genetics. He explained what sets this startup apart in the world of crop breeding.
Farm Progress talked with Spenser Maughan, a co-founder of Finistere, about why that firm is investing in HFG, including an interesting approach to crop breeding. “I don’t know at this point of any other group that has an end-to-end predictive platform [for crop breeding] — people using genomic selection and data science to predict breeding outcomes for inbreds,” Maughan said.
Maughan said that HFG’s approach is more inclusive. In fact, he shared it’s the first end-to-end predictive system that can start with the parent inbreds (actually help predict how each of those might perform) and go right through to commercial production. Knowing how a genetic package might perform when seed comes to market would be a leg up for any company with access to the tool.
The system uses artificial intelligence for plant breeding, and the platform is named Luther. It’s a prediction engine for hybrid seed creation, knowing how different inbreds will come together.
In the past, a breeder may be able to predict some performance from a company program — but there was still a lot of trialing going on, which can slow the process. With the HFG system, the breeder knows how progeny will perform almost from the beginning.
In addition, Maughan said HFG brings another tool to market. “It’s the only platform that I know of that allows high-throughput field testing of root phenotype that’s not destructive,” he said. “They have a hardware device that can map individual root systems of plants in a field and know what that root architecture looks like.” That tool is called RootTracker, and it’s the first scalable in-field root-architecture sensor system on the market.
He explained that the sensor system can provide root health and growth information every 10 minutes throughout the growing season. And it doesn’t require digging up the plant; the data is collected in-field through the season.
Having in-depth root development information is a new data layer for crop performance that could offer plant breeders in-depth information on new hybrids long before they go to market. Maughan explained that having that root information would allow HFG to build genomes that have a kind of drought insurance through enhanced root performance.
Heading to the field
HFG is putting its modeling and high-tech breeding tools to work already. Maughan noted that the company is already in a trialing partnership with several early farming groups. “The company is building out products as a breeding regime, working with some very scalable farmers,” he said. “Those can be meaningful.” He added that Tom Farms is one operation involved in trialing new crops from the startup.
HFG is also looking at direct sales of its products to farmers as early as next season in some markets, and it will be seeking farmer dealers too, he said. “The company’s approach to market will change over time,” he added.
The technology HFG has developed has the potential for use by other companies to fine-tune their breeding platforms. Maughan said HFG is keeping its corn product proprietary for now. “We recognize the commercial value of the RootTracker piece, for a lot of different uses,” he said. “We’re on the road map to create a software-as-a-service platform that could be an independent breeding platform.”
The company is looking at ways to commercialize Luther and the RootTracker in the future. Today, it’s offering non-GMO crops to market that are going into field trials in 2019. The company isn’t focusing on non-GMO; it’s a starting point. “It’s important to point out that GM crops start as non-GM crops. You have to have an awesome inbred that you pair with a GM inbred to introduce a trait,” Maughan said. “The hard part is to increase that genetic gain; you want to make a better genome.”
Learn more about HFG at hifidelitygenetics.com.