Synthetic Genomics Spins Out Another Startup, Agradis, Focused on Agricultural Biotechnology

10/24/11Follow @bvbigelow

After spinning out a startup last year to develop next-generation vaccines, San Diego’s Synthetic Genomics says today it has joined forces with a Mexican investor to form Agradis, an agricultural biotech that will seek to commercialize its advances in plant breeding and genomics.

With $20 million in Series A financing, Agradis is intended to accelerate the advances Synthetic Genomics has made with bacteria and other microbes that provide nutrients and disease resistance for the root systems of plants. Alfonso Romo, the Mexican businessman and investor who was Synthetic Genomics’ initial lead investor, is a co-founder of the startup, along with J. Craig Venter, the genomics pioneer and chairman and CEO of Synthetic Genomics.

“We’ve been having these discussions for a very long time,” Venter told me this morning. “With the success in finding the microbes, we decided to put all the discussions together.”

Synthetic Genomics (SGI) has amassed a huge collection of these microbes and has been screening and characterizing their activity, Venter explains. The benefits can be conveyed to plants by simply coating the seed with the microbes, he says, and a number of field trials are underway in the United States.

“The reason we’re doing this as a spinout instead of keeping it at SGI [is that] with all the different areas that we’re working in, this allows the investors to invest just in the agricultural portion,” says Venter. “As you saw last year, we spun out the vaccine company. We have so much diversity because our technology works in so many spaces.”

Agradis investors include Plenus, Romo’s investment and operating company, Synthetic Genomics itself, and Draper Fisher Jurvetson, among others. Synthetic Genomics has focused mostly on developing algae-based biofuels and bio-based chemicals since the company was founded. It has been working with Exxon Mobile to make a biological substitute for petroleum-based crude oil, with BP on ways to use microbes to alter fuel processes, and with Novartis and others to advance the rapid development of new vaccines.

The goal for Agradis is twofold: to produce superior castor, sorghum, and other cash crops through genomic advances and to develop plant-associated microbes in ways that can protect and foster plant growth. The startup has licensed extensive germplasm collections, breeding programs, and plant cultivars from Plenus, and genomics expertise from Synthetic Genomics.

“The first part of this is using microbes to try and help replace chemicals and fertilizers to promote plant growth and disease control, so it’s really trying to get to a much more natural, green way of producing things without having to use [petrochemical-based] fertilizers,” Venter says.

The second part, which is focused initially on castor, is intended to produce fuels, lubricants, cosmetics, and polymers from castor seed oil, Venter says. “We will be trying to make direct genetic modifications and we’ll be trying to make genetic enhancements without making GMOs [genetically modified organisms]. So it will be taking both approaches, breeding approaches, but marker-selected breeding because we have the genomic data.”

Agradis anticipates that its advances will lead to higher yields, lower production costs, and a more reliable supply of raw material, according to a statement issued today. The company says castor also could become an economically viable biofuel feedstock.

Sweet sorghum is a type of grass with high sugar content, which makes it an attractive raw material for producing biofuels, the company says. Because of sorghum’s high drought tolerance, short growth cycle, and efficient use of nutrients, Agradis also plans to sell advanced varieties of sweet sorghum to emerging markets for biofuels. In addition to a number of U.S. field trials, Venter says Agradis also is working with its Mexican partners to explore agricultural opportunities in Mexico. In each case, Venter says the company intends to target its production for land that’s unsuitable for food crops.

Venter acknowledges longtime concerns over genetically modified crops, but says GMO issues have been focused mostly on food crops “and I think that’s a dying issue around the world.”

In any event, Venter emphasizes that the technology under development at Agradis is a necessary response to the over-arching issue of global warming as well as the rising demands of the Earth’s ever-increasing population.

“We have to do something to change how we produce food and fuels,” Venter says. “In three days we pass the 7 billion mark of people on this planet. In 12 years, we’ll be adding another billion. So we need to find sustainable ways to produce food and chemicals to deal with this ever-increasing population as well as the problems of what oil-based chemicals negatively do to the environment in terms of constantly increasing CO2 in the atmosphere.”

Bruce V. Bigelow is the editor of Xconomy San Diego. You can e-mail him at bbigelow@xconomy.com or call (619) 669-8788 Follow @bvbigelow

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