The seeds farmers plant in their fields can carry certain desirable traits, such as drought tolerance or pest resistance. Breeding or genetic engineering can produce such traits, but ag biotech startup Inari Agriculture aims to take trait development to a new level—customizing seeds to grow best in the soil and weather at the farm where they’ll be planted.
Cambridge, MA-based Inari is emerging from stealth today to allow a peek at its technology and its plans. CEO Ponsi Trivisvavet (pictured above) says Inari has developed a way to optimize seeds to fit local conditions, such as the humidity, the day and night-time temperatures, and even the soil type of a farm. She says the company, founded in 2016, aims to bring its “personalized seed for farmers” into field testing by next year’s growing season.
Trivisvavet says Inari starts by designing seeds that fit the local environment of a grower. By learning about the local environment, Inari gains an understanding of the genetic traits best suited to enable a crop to thrive there. The company then uses computational techniques to understand the genes, and CRISPR gene-editing technology to change the gene sequence. Trvisvavet says this bioengineering method saves seed developers time, and the resulting designer crops help farmers make more money.
Inari’s approach will work on any crop, Trivisvavet says. Wheat, soybean, and corn will be the company’s first targets. The time savings will come from the use of computational agronomy and gene-editing techniques; cost savings will come from the reduced need for fertilizers and other crop inputs, Trivisvavet says. She adds that the Inari seeds should produce higher yields, and enable farmers to grow a higher-value crop. For example, the technology can develop wheat varieties that have higher protein content, which would allow farmers to sell their wheat as a premium product.
Inari will still need to show that its seeds can produce results in the field. So far, Inari’s technology has been tested in the lab and is currently in greenhouse testing. The company is doing its research with seeds supplied by academic partners, including Texas A&M University and the University of Nebraska, as well as undisclosed seed companies. Trivisvavet says Inari is currently looking to partner with more seed companies. Those companies will play a role in the startup’s commercialization plans. If all goes well in field trials, Trivisvavet says that the partners will use the Inari technology to develop customized seeds that can be sold to growers in the U.S., and eventually, the rest of the world.
Other companies are already applying computational technology and gene editing techniques to optimize crops, such as Benson Hill Biosystems. The startup, which splits its operations between Durham, NC and St. Louis, MO, offers a CRISPR gene-editing tool that is part of the startup’s crop improvement software. But while Inari aims to bring its seeds to the market through seed companies, Benson Hill’s target customers have been businesses and farmers that don’t have access to advanced technologies.
Inari is the latest biotech startup to spin out of startup foundry Flagship Pioneering. The venture capital firm’s investments spans both human health and agriculture; it was the launch pad for Boston agricultural microbials firm Indigo Ag, which has raised more than $400 million in financing since its 2014 launch. Before joining Inari, Trivisvavet worked at Indigo as the startup’s chief operating officer. Trivisvavet says Flagship has provided Inari’s financing so far, but she declined to disclose the amount.
Prior to working at Indigo, Trivisvavet was president of Syngenta’s North American seeds business. Inari’s 60 full-time workers include some that have backgrounds in medical research, which Trivisvavet says bring genomic and data science experience to the company. The company’s science advisory board includes University of California Berkeley professor and CRISPR pioneer Jennifer Doudna.
Photo by Flagship Pioneering