By David Perry
We are at a critical moment in time. By 2050, the planet will have 9.7 billion people to feed. That’s over two billion more than today. It’s six USAs, or just under two Chinas worth of additional humans. At the same time, the yield gains resulting from modern agricultural technologies have plateaued, generating annual yield increases of just over one percent per year. Climate change, meanwhile, has caused weather volatility and created record dry spells impacting farmers around the globe. If current trends continue, by 2050 we will no longer be producing enough food to sustain our population.
Compounding the problem, the current gains in agricultural productivity stem from increasing the use of existing agricultural technologies such as insecticides, herbicides, fungicides and chemical fertilizer; many of which are coming under increasing scrutiny for their long-term effects on both humans and the environment.
So our challenge is twofold: we must increase our planet’s capacity to produce food, and we must do so in a sustainable and responsible manner that complements while gradually replacing the technologies that are responsible for much of our recent gains.
Fortunately, there is ample reason for optimism. Scientists are more focused than ever before on addressing these challenges, and investor interest in new agricultural technologies and business ideas has never been higher. Our team has pioneered one of the breakthrough ideas in this area: harnessing the plant’s natural microbes – also known as the plant microbiome – to help farmers to feed the world.
That’s why today, we’re launching Indigo.
Our journey started with the human microbiome, which many think is the most significant discovery in human health in the last five years. It has long been known that humans have more microbial cells in and on our body as we do human cells. In some ways we are more bacterial than human.
Only recently have we begun to understand the significant positive impact that these microbes have on our health. In the last few years, compelling studies have shown that our microbiomes impact health outcomes as diverse as whether we tend to be fat or thin, whether we are likely to become diabetic, our susceptibility to infection and even heart disease and cancer.
Throughout human evolution, these symbiotic microbes have evolved with us, enhancing our ability to maintain optimal health and fend off disease, all of which worked beautifully until the discovery and mass adoption of antibiotics. Of course, modern antibiotics have saved millions of lives, but, as we used them more and more broadly, they also had unforeseen consequences on these beneficial microbes, eliminating much of the good bacteria with the bad and making us more vulnerable to various health problems. So we’ve taken to consuming live and active cultures – probiotics – in an effort to repopulate our intestines with good bacteria.
So our founders hypothesized - if this is true in humans, shouldn’t it also hold true in modern agricultural crops? There are significant parallels: like humans, plants also have a microbiome that evolved over millions of years to help them deal with stress, and, like humans, the plant microbiome was disrupted by the invention of a new technology. In this case, it was agricultural chemicals; the pesticides, herbicides and especially fungicides that were increasingly used in agriculture starting in the middle of the last century. Like antibiotics, these new technologies brought many benefits, but they also systematically, if unintentionally, reduced the number and diversity of certain beneficial plant microbes in crops. Identifying these missing beneficial microbes and adding them back to crops is the core of what we do; essentially adding back what nature intended to be there all along.
To answer these questions, Flagship VentureLabs, the innovation foundry of Flagship Ventures, began research in 2012 and created Symbiota in 2014. The renaming of Symbiota to Indigo marks a new phase in the company’s development.
While our mission is simple in concept, actually doing it requires deep scientific expertise and an enormous investment in research and development. We sought to recreate the plant’s natural microbial makeup, leading us to identify and sequence 40,000 endosymbionts – microbes that live inside the plant itself – creating the largest body of data on earth for these microbes. We have over 90 pending patent applications, and one issued patent. We’ve collected over 36,000 samples from more than 700 plant species around the world and counting. All these numbers are our way of saying we’ve been intensely focused on R&D for the past two years, working with some of the brightest minds around the world.
To reintroduce these beneficial microbes back into crops, we’ve created a seed coating that provides a path for these microbes to return to their native habitat. This in turn yields more abundant, healthier crops that are more resistant to stresses like insufficient water, low nitrogen, high temperature and salty soils, while bolstering crops’ resistance to disease and harmful insects.
The results have been impressive. We’ve now tested our beneficial microbes on nine different crops on three different continents in four separate growing seasons, and we are consistently seeing 10+% yield benefits on crops grown in targeted stress conditions. Not since the Green Revolution has there been a scientific discovery with so much potential to impact global crop production.
A Meaningful Opportunity
We believe we are on the forefront of something that serves the needs of both farmers and consumers. For farmers, the yield benefits will help improve grower profitability while increasing our capacity to feed a growing population amid increasingly challenging weather conditions. For consumers, we can begin to make vital changes in how our food is grown; like being more efficient with water, and reducing the use of nitrogen fertilizer, pesticides and herbicides over time.
While we’re motivated by the opportunity to make positive impactful change on the world, the economic opportunity is also considerable. To put this in perspective, four of our initial focus crops – corn, soy, wheat and cotton – represent an annual global production value of more than $600B. A 10% increase in the yield of those crops would create approximately $60B a year in value. Few opportunities in the world have that sort of potential for value creation.
Maximizing the potential of the plant microbiome will not be cheap. As part of today’s news, we’re announcing that we’ve raised $56M in funding, led by our founding team at Flagship, a leading venture firm in therapeutics, healthcare technology, and agriculture. Since its founding in 2000, Flagship has created and launched more than 40 first-in-class companies in therapeutics, healthcare technology, and agriculture. Flagship is at the forefront of the human microbiome field through a number of companies including Epiva, Evelo Biosciences and Seres Therapeutics (NASDAQ: MCRB).
Given the size of the opportunity and the strength of our financial backing, we believe we are limited only by our ability to execute. That is why we are assembling a world-class team from academia, agriculture, business and science. One example is Roger Beachy, who recently joined us as our Chief Scientific Officer. Among his many achievements, Roger was the Chief Scientist for the USDA, appointed by President Obama as the first director of the National Institute of Food and Agriculture, served as Executive Director and former CEO of the Global Institute for Food Security, and was most recently a Founding director of the World Food Center at UC Davis.
We are just scratching the surface of the potential of the plant microbiome. What we know today is probably less than 1% of what we will know in five to ten years. In order to maximize the potential of this new approach, we will need to first work with existing technologies, even as we seek to replace them or reduce their use over time. We are excited about the possibility of addressing some of the biggest problems in agriculture, and doing so in a way that meets the needs of both growers and consumers, and we couldn’t be more excited to share our journey with you, as we harness the power of nature to help farmers feed our planet.