Raleigh ag tech startup to reduce methane through modified corn feed, secures NCBiotech funding
As concerns mount over the climate impact of methane gas emissions, a Raleigh startup is commercializing its engineered corn that gives farmers a way to practically eliminate methane emissions from cattle.
Elysia Creative Biology is working within the existing agricultural supply chain to boost the use of corn feed that prevents methane emissions. The three-person company, founded in 2021, plans to provide its modified corn seed to farms that produce corn supplies for feed mills, which in turn sell animal feed to dairy farmers.
“Animals are the second-biggest source of methane emissions after the natural gas industry,” says Eli Hornstein, Elysia’s founder and CEO. “It’s more than all shipping plus all air travel plus all deforestation.
“We know from quite a bit of science now that you can use various compounds to get rid of methane. And you don’t lose an ounce of meat or a gallon of milk.”
Reducing agriculture’s environmental impact
Hornstein, a Raleigh native with degrees from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and Duke University, plus a Ph.D. in plant biology from North Carolina State University, studied to be a professional conservationist. While on fellowships and research projects around the world, he saw how growing demand for agricultural lands outpaced efforts to protect the environment.
“When I was in Mongolia on a fellowship, I made the decision, based on the evidence I was seeing, that I needed to go into agriculture to find a way to make it more efficient and lessen all of this outside pressure on the environment,” he says.
Hornstein started working on the concept of his corn modification process on the side during his graduate studies before going full-time with Elysia. The company’s proprietary technology is based on biosynthesis of anti-methane compounds in plants.
One example of where Elysia has found success is with the chemical bromoform, which is naturally found in rare and hard-to-grow seaweeds. When mixed into animal feed, this seaweed has been found to reduce methane emissions by about 98 percent. Elysia’s technology now allows common crops like corn to do the job on their own.
On the path to commercialization, Elysia has had interviews and conversations with more than 300 farmers, cooperatives, food companies and environmentalists. He’s currently raising capital for the company and using grants and loans to fund operations. Elysia is based in the new NC State Plant Sciences Building on Centennial Campus.
In 2023, the North Carolina Biotechnology Center awarded Elysia a $100,000 small business research loan from funds used to support early-stage ag tech companies. Hornstein also is a finalist for the national Activate Fellowship, managed by the nonprofit Activate Global Inc. to support scientists on their entrepreneurial journey.
Leaning into the ag supply chain
Hornstein’s business model doesn’t depend on direct sales to dairy farmers. He notes they probably don’t have time to carefully measure out the right amount of corn additive and apply it on a daily basis. And the cost of buying supplies to cut methane emissions could be too high for many dairy farms.
Instead, by selling engineered seed to corn farms, Elysia enters the supply chain upstream from the roughly 2,000 U.S. dairy farms that have more than 1,000 head of cattle each. Feed mills will use Elysia-modified corn in their blends that they sell to dairy farms.
More dairy farmers are adopting environmentally friendly practices, often through incentives such as carbon credits that reward them if they can demonstrate a reduction in their carbon footprint. Efforts to reduce methane emissions are of growing interest to dairy farmers.
“Elysia’s approach is beneficial because it doesn’t require farmers to alter their current practices or buy new equipment,” says Jen Greenstein, senior director of investments at NCBiotech. “Methane reduction in livestock is a trending research area. Elysia is well-positioned to meet this demand for more sustainable agricultural practices.”