San Diego Agri-Biotech Startup Moves to Challenge Monsanto on its Own Turf
San Diego’s little Cibus Global is preparing to one day take on Monsanto, the Fortune 500 agri-industry colossus and leading producer of genetically engineered seed. The bioscience company last month formed a joint partnership with an agricultural products company based in Tel Aviv to spur development of new strains of crops. High on Cibus’ to-do list is the development of crops resistant to weed killers sold by its new Israeli partner, Makhteshim-Agan. This is the model pioneered by Monsanto, which developed a line of “Roundup Ready” crops that are genetically altered to resist its herbicide, Roundup.
Cibus, a private venture-backed company with just 34 employees, seems more than a bit outmatched by its would-be rival. Monsanto is a multibillion-dollar company whose Roundup Ready strains account for much of the corn, cotton and soy grown in the U.S. But as Bruce noted in his report, Cibus believes that its technology for producing new crop strains is less likely to raise the ire of activists who oppose the dissemination of genetically modified organisms, or GMOs. Cibus believes its technology—a sort of controlled evolution—will offer a marketing advantage in Europe, where concerns about GMOs have limited the acceptance of modified crops.
Cibus says its technology, dubbed Rapid Trait Development System, or RTDS, uses the natural DNA repair system in plant cells to trigger a genetic change linked to the desired trait. Cibus CEO Keith Walker tells me the company’s technology changes just one letter in a plant’s genetic code. These little mistakes randomly occur all the time in nature, Walker says; yet Cibus says its technology can control the process.
“The traits we introduce in a plant could occur in nature in and of themselves,” he says. “All we do is direct and channel this process.” This differs from Monsanto’s traditional genetic engineering technique of inserting DNA from bacteria into plants to produce its Roundup Ready strains. However, it remains to be seen whether GMO activists will be more tolerant of Cibus’ technology.
Cibus got its start as a unit of ValiGen, a Princeton, N.J.-based biotech that was also using gene-correction technology to develop new treatments for human genetic disease. It was spun out of ValiGen in 2001 after the parent was unable to find financing in the market drought that followed the World Trade Center terrorist attack. “We had always wanted to spin it out and that became convenient in the aftermath of 9/11,” Walker says.
In addition to the $37 million commitment from Makhteshim-Agan, Cibus has raised $20 million in equity and another $10 million to $15 million in partnership revenue since the spinout, Walker says. One of its partners is chemical giant BASF; Cibus is working to produce strains of canola and oilseed rape resistant to BASF’s Clearfield herbicides. In another arrangement, Cibus and the National Grain Sorghum Producers Foundation have an agreement with a unit of Sumitomo Chemical Co. to develop sorghum strains resistant to SelectMax, an herbicide sold by the Japanese industrial giant to control grassy weeds.
Cibus’ deal with Makhteshim-Agan is potentially far-reaching. The Makhteshim-Agan is among the world’s largest producers of generic chemicals for agriculture, Walker says. So there is a potential opportunity for Cibus to develop a wide variety of herbicide-resistant strains to complement the chemicals in Makhteshim-Agan’s portfolio. This would give farmers more choices than they have now, Walker maintains.
“They have a broad array of product categories and a huge number of active ingredients. This gives us the opportunity to create products for farmers of particular crops for their circumstances,” Walker says. “Rather than having the farmer pick a flavor from one company, they can offer a farmer the Neapolitan choice to meet their needs.” Walker declined to say which crops and chemicals the partners would target first. The deal encompasses five crops for the European market, and Cibus will receive the $37 million over time, depending on its progress.
Beyond the obvious technical challenges of new product development, the deal presents marketing challenges as well. Since Makhteshim-Agan sells generic chemicals, what is to stop a farmer from using a competing company’s herbicide with a Cibus-developed strain? Walker said Makhteshim-Agan had several options. It could tinker with its formulation. It could also require farmers to use its chemicals as a condition of the warranty on the resistant strains. It could entice farmers with pricing strategies. In any case, Walker saw little reason for worry; he notes that Roundup and Roundup Ready products have enjoyed continued sales growth even though the herbicide no longer enjoys patent protection in the U.S.
Walker sees other applications for Cibus technology. In one of its more ambitious projects, Cibus is working on a canola-based biodiesel fuel that burns efficiently at low temperatures and can be stored without turning rancid. Walker says the company is getting close to figuring this one out. He would also like to have Cibus develop a better potato for making French fries, a project that at this point is a bit down the road. Herbicide-resistance is just the beginning. According to Walker, it’s “low-hanging fruit.”