Like Its Plants, Pairwise Has Growth Plans
Pairwise, a growing agriculture and food company that recently signed a lease for its new site in Durham’s Golden Belt complex downtown, expects to increase its 50 employee headcount by an additional 30 to 40 in 2019.
The company, which has a greenhouse and lab facilities in Research Triangle Park, hopes to “fundamentally change the way plant breeding is done,” says CEO Tom Adams, Ph.D.
In an interview with the North Carolina Biotechnology Center, Adams said Pairwise has licensed CRISPR-based gene-editing technology that allows very specific changes to be made in crops that can’t be done with traditional breeding.
CRISPR, he explained, can target a specific sequence of RNA or DNA in a genome of 20 million bases. It can find and cut a specific set of 20 bases. “It’s as if you went to find a house from everyone in North America and find it based just on its description, without an address.”
He pointed out that the license Pairwise has with Harvard University gives the company access to base editing, which is more like an eraser than scissors, allowing it to remove a base it doesn’t want and replace it with another.
“Cutting can sometimes let other things happen you then have to clean up. Base editing gives you a lot more control over the end point,” he said. “It’s much more precise.”
Coupled with genomics and data science, he said, “We can change breeding from a process where we cross two things and follow random assortment, then select outcomes, to where we can predetermine outcomes. We’re going to see more variety in crops than we have in the last 10,000 years.”
Adams said Pairwise is focused on consumer products. “We want to focus on the same foods you see in the produce aisle and make healthy foods more available and sustainable.”
That means the company will address traits such as shelf life, seedless varieties, and “making fruits and vegetables more snackable. We’re interested in the fruit and berry market opportunity.”
He added, “We’re looking at healthy foods you can choose over potato chips.” That means developing individual bite sizes, along with seedless and long-shelf-life traits and making some fruits and vegetables available year-round.
He noted that’s part of a “two-pronged approach,” that includes its work with Bayer on row crops such as cotton, soy, corn and canola to address a variety of challenges facing a growing population.
Adams said the company chose to locate in North Carolina “for its incredibly diverse agricultural environment for growing things, its universities, and the Biotech Center.”
“The Biotech Center was helpful in getting us established from the beginning,” said Adams. “They let us use their facility to interview people when none of us lived in town. They helped us figure out other opportunities. I don’t know of anything like it in the other communities we looked at.”