The Hog’s a Hot Dog: N-Sense, Gen3Bio, Nebullam, PowerPollen, TeselaGen takin’ biotech to the next level

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For a number of years we have been pointing to Iowa’s intriguing combination of feedstock, infrastructure and political consensus on renewables as a potent force in bioeconomy deployment. But these days, toss in some serious innovation chops, too — a corridor of invention stretching from St. Louis to Minneapolis and running hot across most of the Hawkeye State. Looks like the US is going to get some serious payback for all that investment in the bioeconomy going back to the aftermath of the 1980s farm crisis.

At the recent Iowa Biotechnology Association’s annual Partnering for Growth meeting, a number of technologies are worth noting for combining advanced technology with strong market application — all of them have strong prospects in what Iowa refers to as the Cultivation Corridor, and many with global implications.

Used to be that the bioregions would count on the labs of Silicon Valley and Boston to produce technologies for deployment. Not the case any more. Here are five the demonstrate the trend.

N-Sense

It’s a real-time soil nitrate sensor system for variable rate nitrogen application.

About half of the 13 million tons of N fertilizer applied to agricultural soils in the US every year is lost. This causes an annual loss of $5-6B by farmers and serious off-site environmental problems. Nitrogen use efficiency would be greatly improved, if farmers could vary the rate of N fertilizer application across their fields.

Unlike current technologies that are either model-based or require permanent installation of multiple sensors across the field, N-Sense offers a unique sensing solution that enables farmers to measure soil nitrate levels in real-time, as the sensor moves across the field, and apply N fertilizer only where it is needed. The N-Sense system will save farmers an estimated $30 to 70 per acre and reduce off-site nitrate pollution.  More about them here.

Nebullam

Nebullam is a product-as-a-service company, providing High Pressure Aeroponics growing units, paired with artificial intelligence.

As the world’s population gets set to reach between 9 and 10 billion people over the coming 30 years, building a secure and consistent food supply is necessary. Food distribution leads to almost 40% waste between harvest and point of purchase, with vegetables being the most commonly wasted product. Almost 70% of global water usage goes to agriculture. 68% of US consumers want locally sourced foods and ingredients. This includes areas with unfavorable environmental factors.

Nebullam provides a bundled solution to increase the average number of harvests to 12 per year, while reducing production labor requirements by 75%. Nebullam growing units are designed to maximize the number of harvest cycles and yield, while reducing onsite labor and input requirements. Nebullam software is designed to monitor environmental conditions and plant health, as well as to provide remote technical support. Data is continually collected, via sensors and camera, assessed, and standardized. Machine learning and machine vision applications further control environmental conditions and plant health. More about them here.

Power Pollen

Most of the major seed companies in the US are utilizing or developing some form of genetic male sterility in maize and other crops.  Despite these extensive efforts, about 80% of maize hybrid seed produced in 2015 will be accomplished in virtually the same manner as it was in the 1930s, and most of the rest in a manner that has not changed since the 1960s.  AAT’s technology takes a new look at hybrid seed production and bypasses the conventional need for male sterility, as well as the need for male plants and isolated production blocks.

While maize and soybeans were planted on approximately the same land area in the U.S. in 2015, the total value of the hybrid seed maize industry was more than four times that of the soybean seed industry.  However, producing hybrid seed is expensive relative to self-pollinated crops.  In some crops, such as soybeans and wheat, the biology of the plant is prohibitive to the economical production of hybrid seed, thus disabling the realization of the benefits of hybridity in these crops.

It’s a big market. Total value of the enablements to the US seed industry total in the billions of dollars per year, with additional value to the grain markets.  While we are keeping options open, the current route to market will be to license intellectual property to major players in the seed industry, while keeping options open for out-right sale of patents and/or parts of the company.  The current research plan will provide support for diverse IP strategies that will form the basis for all of AATs products.  More about them here.

TeselaGen

This one is Silicon Valley-based — but highly popular in the midwestern agricultural heartland, And the DNA modification market is large and fast growing, increasing from approximately $2.0 billion in 2014 to a projected $6.6 billion in 2023.

TeselaGen has developed an award winning computer aided design-build platform for biology – an advanced informatics system supporting flexible computer-aided design and manufacture for companies in Ag-tech, pharma, and industrial biotech. TeselaGen replaces costly and time-consuming traditional methods for biological design with a secure, scalable enterprise-class platform that enables a seamless “design to delivery” process.

Large companies that participate in the bio-economy are replacing traditional recombinant technologies with modern synthesis, assembly and editing techniques. This modern “synthetic biology” approach has opened the door for a radical transformation of biology and a rapid expansion of potential applications. This increased demand requires a secure, scalable, protocol-driven platform that can span multiple users working on multiple projects across large, geographically distributed organizations. These new approaches are pushing companies to update their product development methods and IP strategies to maintain their lead and competitive

TeselaGen’s Synthetic Evolution enterprise software platform links state-of-the-art biological design with automation. For example, Dow AgroSciences has used the TeselaGen platform to complete a previously intractable multi-year crop protection biomolecule design/build/test project in a just a few months, increasing DOW’s target hit rate by 10x. This success has spurred the initiation of a 2nd phase of collaboration between Dow and TeselaGen. More about them here.

Gen3 Bio

Gen3Bio exclusively licenses an effective, efficient and low cost enzymolysis of algae in water to extract fats, sugars and proteins with minimal degradation. The recovered fats, sugars and proteins can then be readily separated and converted into specialty chemicals

The EPA is targeting a municipal wastewater nutrient discharge reduction of 95%. Wastewater nutrients provide a natural algae food source. Therefore, algae can be used to reduce nutrient discharge — but how can generated algae be disposed of without sending it to landfills?

Gen3Bio aims at municipal wastewater treatment facilities, especially the 16,000+ in the United States, transforming municipal wastewater by converting landfill expenses into profitable specialty chemicals by maximizing chemical recovery yields from algae via a proprietary enzyme blend that optimizes sugar, fat and protein extraction. Over existing technologies, we increase algae product yields up to 50%, reduce capital requirements up to 90% and reduce operating expenses up to 50%. More about them here.

The Bottom Line

Innovation is innovating, change itself is changing — part of that is the shift of innovation’s traditional homes and incubation centers from the coasts to the fly-over states. Think St. Louis, Ames, Champaign-Urbana, Madison and Minneapolis-St. Paul. The DOE has been investing in a series of Bioenergy Research Centers that are often based in the rural economy, not just serving it. The investments appear to be paying off.