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Getting Down to the Roots of Breeding Better Corn

By Allan Maurer, NCBiotech Writer

If you want a better corn crop, you need to get to the root of the matter.

So says Duke University scientist Philip Benfey, Ph.D., who co-founded his second startup company, Durham-based Hi Fidelity Genetics, to use data on roots to breed and sell corn seed with higer yields.

Benfey’s previous company, Grassroots Biotechnology, sold to Monsanto for an undisclosed amount in 2013. It also focused on root traits, primarily of switchgrass, a potential biofuel. But Hi Fidelity Genetics has a different business model, he tells the North Carolina Biotechnology Center.

“We’re in the process of developing a fully integrated seed company,” says Benfey. “Our goal is to sell conventional corn seed. We’re not doing genetic modification. It’s data driven and exploits our intellectual property around root traits.”

Hi Fidelity Genetics' RootTracker devices help speed the search for desired corn traits. -- Hi Fidelity Genetics photos

The company uses its RootTracker field device to collect data on root traits. “Our approach is to improve breeding, make it faster and get greater value,” Benfey says. That may even lead to seeds that grow good corn crops in niche markets such as the Southeast, where the soil and weather make it difficult.

“In the Midwest,” Benfey notes, “They have 10 feet of top soil. In the Southeast, we’re lucky to have six inches.”

All corn seed sold in the U.S. is hybrid, Benfey points out. “It’s the result of crossing two parents. Hybrid is bigger, stronger and higher yielding.”

Hi Fidelity Genetics has research underway that predicts which of two potential parents result in bigger, stronger hybrids in different locations, “Much faster and in specific ways.”

Benfey said the company’s data-driven process is similar to the statistical approach brought to baseball described in Michael Lewis’ book, “Moneyball.” There, the trick was to identify aspects of baseball players overlooked or undervalued by scouts. It resulted in more wins for much less money.

“Breeders tend to be like baseball scouts,” Benfey explains. “They look for particular attributes in corn lines but can miss things because they’re not looking at them in a statistical manner.”

While the company’s focus is on developing corn seed, it may also both license and sell the RootTracker device and technology. “It can also act as the canary in a coal mine,” Benfey says, “and alert farmers to infestation and water issues. There are all sorts of ways for farmers to use it and it can be used for other plants. But that’s not our preferred first market.”

Benfey, a Howard Hughes Medical Institute researcher, who co-founded the company in 2014 with Spencer Maughan, CEO, chairs the new startup’s scientific advisory board. Hi Fidelity Genetics differs from Grassroots in its approach to financing as well as product development.

Grassroots never took any outside financing, but Hi Fidelity raised a seed round and is currently the process of raising a multi-million-dollar A round of funding. The company also won a $500,000 Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy grant. It has five employees but expects to ramp up staff in the next six months.

The company has been breeding corn the last four years and expects to sell its first seed in 2018 for the 2019 growing season.

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