What kinds of companies can be built using plant biotechnology? Four scientists-turned-entrepreneurs discuss their journeys that led them to start a company using their deep knowledge of plant biology.
- Haven Baker, cofounder and CBO of Pairwise
- William Pelton, cofounder and CEO of Phytoform Labs
- Luke Young, cofounder and CEO of Agrisea
- Jonathan Meuser, cofounder and CEO of Chi Botanic
Watch the event or read snippets of the conversation below:
What insight led you to found a plant biotech company?
Haven Baker: At Pairwise, we’re working off of simple insights, which are: 90% of grapes are seedless and 90% of mandarins are seedless. We actually don’t like seeds in our food, which was our consumer insight. The technical insight is I’d seen a trial of a plant that fruits for 3 months. A genetic change can affect how long a plant can flower and fruit, and can be extended quite a ways. The combination of consumer and technical observation provided insight that Pairwise would be a successful business venture.
William Pelton: We initially started with an idea with little understanding of what we needed to do to accomplish it. The lean launchpad system, mastermind by Steve Blank, is based around customer-driven discovery. Rather than building a product that you think will sell, you go out there and find out what people need. Even that was a process because we didn’t know who our customers would be at first.
Jonathan Meuser: When we spoke with people, a lot of companies saw that what we were doing was better, but they weren’t willing to pay for it—they didn’t see the value to the consumers. It also looked like a long path to market: making an almond without cyanide or a safer grapefruit would take years until the trees were in the ground. That’s when we started thinking about the plant cells as the product, and whether we could engineer plant cells in a faster way.
We started talking to people where we could solve problems. Few people realize that aloe makes a toxin that has to be processed out. There are a lot of other compounds from aloe that are beneficial, but these are processed out when the toxin is removed. By talking to companies that produce aloe, we realized if we could make an aloe culture that doesn’t have the toxin, that they would pay twice as much–and there was our market validation. That’s when we knew we had legs behind our idea.
Do plant-based technologies pose unique challenges?
Luke Young: The process of communicating the generation time to investors is definitely challenging. 4 or 5 months can seem too long, even though in the plant biology world that’s very fast! Getting people to understand the timeline is a really critical point.
Jonathan Meuser: We start with cells that are undifferentiated on a petri dish, where they grow very slowly. We take those and put them into a culture and identify the correct culture conditions. When cells grow as a plant, they take weeks to divide; it’s very slow. The idea is that ultimately we can develop cells like these that divide in days, rather than weeks, but getting there takes a long time. It can be challenging to convince investors to help understand, even those in the biotechnology field—where people are used to growing yeast and bacteria—that these will be longer generation times.
The economics for modeling also don’t apply [to plant biotechnologies]; we can’t just take someone else’s product off the shelf and apply other people’s models for what it’s going to cost to make our products. We’ve had to build that from scratch, and that’s very time consuming and takes a lot of energy—something to consider when starting a plant biotechnology business.
Do regulatory differences between countries affect bringing your product into the market?
Haven Baker: All foods are regulated, so it’s really about whether it’s considered GMO or not. If you’re using gene editing tools to create a plant that could have gotten there through natural breeding processes (even if it would take 1000 years), it’s considered non-GM if the process didn’t introduce any foreign DNA into the genome. The U.S., most of South America, Australia and Japan have settled on this process as just a new breeding technology.
Even if it’s non-GMO in the U.S., you can’t take a plant with a new trait to market without regulatory approvals in Europe. This creates quite a bit of expense, and slows stuff down. We’re looking at business models that are country- or maybe continent-specific, to focus on one market. I think you’re going to see this all over going forward.
William Pelton: When we started our journey, the European Court Justice hadn’t decided how genome edited crops should be regulated. The distinction we make is the GMOs you’ve introduced by foreign DNA resume editing, you sort of make deletions or change single bases rather than introducing something from another species or organism.
After July 2018, the European Court Justice decided all genome editing will be regulated in the same fashion, effectively cutting off Europe from that sort of biotechnology. I think Europe will suffer as a result, and we’ll lose talent.
We had to pivot very early based on our talks with European plant breeders who immediately said ‘no interest, too risky,’ and start to look for other fields like the U.S.
What advice would you give to those founding plant biotech startups?
Luke Young: Consider a crop with shorter generation time! Getting something that can grow in a month, rather than 4 months (like rice), is definitely beneficial.
William Pelton: Pay attention to the advisory team, and build those relationships fast; they’re so important. I’m happy with the team now but should have paid more attention. Big shout out to Stephen Chambers, who took us through Lean Launchpad. Advisors are just gold dust!
Haven Baker: The most unexpected benefit of a startup is working with a great team. If I’d known this would be so much fun, I’d have done it earlier! The unique position of being able to hire the team around you and have great people makes it fun and it will be fun, whether it works or doesn’t work. Obviously, success is important, but farming great relationships with the teams are as rewarding as anything else.
Jonathan Meuser: Start something with a huge dream that you are going to have a revolutionary change, but also keep a foot in reality to maintain timelines and budgets. This is really, really important and needs to be in the forefront of your mind at all times.
Thanks to Haven Baker, William Pelton, Jonathan Meuser, and Luke Young for their participation.