Durham’s Hi Fidelity Genetics Breeds $8.5 Million A round
Traditional seed breeding methods are slow and expensive, But technology can speed up the process of breeding hardier plants at lower cost, according to Hi Fidelity Genetics, a Durham-based crop breeding company using artificial intelligence (AI) to improve seed genetics.
Philip Benfey, Ph.D, a Duke biology professor and co-founder of HFG, told the Biotech Center in an earlier interview that “We’re in the process of developing a fully integrated seed company. 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.”
Spencer Maughan, Ph.D., co-founder of HFG and Finistere Ventures, said in a news release that “In agriculture, the most consolidated point of value and technology is genetics because the only thing a farmer actually has to buy to be in business is a seed.”
He added, “Unfortunately, many farmers don’t have access to high-quality genetics at reasonable cost. By using novel data sets and predictive data science to create the first end-to-end predictive breeding platform for crops, HFG is changing this paradigm and empowering farmers.”
HFG said it will use this investment to bring its breeding platform to the $500 billion global agricultural seed market, with an initial focus on broad acre crops such as corn and cotton.
“When my team at DuPont Pioneer created the industry-leading, drought-tolerant AQUAmax maize hybrids, we were the first to apply genomic selection to develop commercial products,” said Mark Cooper, Ph.D., consulting CTO at HFG. “I’m excited to work with HFG to take this powerful breeding technology to the next level for the benefit of farmers.”
HFG has developed new non-genetically modified corn hybrids that are competitive with current commercial seed. HFG’s data-driven approach has helped improve its proprietary corn seed and dramatically decreased the cost of traditional breeding, the company says.
With the funding, HFG will accelerate development of RootTracker, the first scalable, wireless in-field root architecture sensor system for breeding more-robust root systems. Data from RootTracker feeds into Luther, its AI breeding platform with the first prediction engine for hybrid seed creation.
Benfey, who previously co-founded GrassRoots Biotechnology, an ag biotech company that was purchased by Monsanto, told the Biotech Center that HFG’s focus is on developing corn seed, but it may also both license and sell the RootTracker device and technology. “It can also act as the canary in a coal mine,” Benfey said, “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.”
Clay Mitchell of Fall Line Capital pointed out in the funding announcement that “Since the early 2000s, seed corn prices have gone up 2.5 times faster than corn prices, eroding the farmer’s share of farm-gate value. The ability of HFG’s technology to rapidly create outstanding corn seed and the company’s initial focus on delivering seed into the non-GM market, which has the lowest regulatory hurdles, frames a really exciting opportunity for creating value.”
Maughan noted that “Traditional breeding methods are manual and expensive, and there has been no scalable option to breed for root traits. The importance of roots in confronting abiotic stress, such as drought and nutrient scarcity, is well known. HFG delivers the first cost-effective, non-destructive, in-field approach to objectively map roots from individual plants to make advanced root breeding possible.”
As climate volatility and water availability make current corn seed more vulnerable to large changes in yield performance, HFG said it sees incredible potential to build genomes with “drought insurance” via enhanced root performance.
To help lead the R&D and commercial efforts, the company has appointed Bill Niebur, Ph.D., as COO and president. Most recently serving as the CEO of Origin Agritech, Niebur previously led Pioneer Dupont’s efforts in China after completing a lengthy tenure as Pioneer’s global head of R&D.
Fall Line Capital’s Mitchell has joined the HFG board as chair, alongside Finistere’s Arama Kukutai.
Gro Alliance, KdT Ventures, Prairie Crest Capital, S2G and Tom Farms also joined the Series A round.
The company previously raised a seed round and won a $500,000 Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy (ARPA-E) grant.
HFG’s growing team will now be based in its new headquarters in Durham. The company plans to continue to expand its hardware engineering, data science and molecular teams in the year ahead.