Inari, based in Cambridge, Massachusetts, plans to use the total $144 million it has raised so far to develop crops that are more productive and consume less water and fertilizer than those currently produced by seed conglomerates. The company will focus on major crops such as corn, soybean, wheat and tomato. “All the genetics [for these crops] are owned by just a couple of multinational companies, and we want to challenge that,” says Ponsi Trivisvavet, CEO of Inari. “We want to bring back genetic diversity to make seeds that are better for the environment and the farmer,” she says.
Inari is one of a several small companies with similarly lofty goals who are capitalizing on new editing technologies, such as CRISPR, and computational methods for predictive modeling. Such tools make crop development faster and less expensive, and potentially could give startups a shot at competing with the big players by sidestepping onerous and expensive regulatory oversight.
Just a few years ago, a seed developer could plan on spending a decade and up to $100 million on bringing one new crop trait to market (Nat. Biotechnol. 35, 396–398, 2017). That’s not only because the old tools for altering the genetics of these crops, such as Agrobacterium-mediated transformation, were slower, more expensive and more unpredictable than CRISPR, but also because of regulations, both in the United States and especially in Europe. Companies had to present years of field data to regulators before they could sell the seeds. And the final food products were often marked “GMO,” a label distasteful to the public, presenting marketing challenges.
These barriers kept many would-be small players out of the industry. Trivisvavet says that with new tools, her company can develop crops for a fraction of the cost and time previously required. And so far, it appears that CRISPR-edited plants won’t trigger US regulatory oversight or a GMO label (Nat. Biotechnol. 36, 6–7, 2018). Read more …