corn leaves closeup Willie Vogt
DATA AND BREEDING TECH: A new startup with a solid pedigree of leadership has a plan for the future. The aim is to match data and agronomic needs to get new seed to market faster.

Rethinking the seed business

A new startup, Inari, plans to shorten lead times and provided targeted plant breeding.

The ag startup world is populated by a wide array of companies aiming to make farming better, more efficient and profitable. Adding to that list is Inari, a new firm started by Flagship Pioneering — creators of Indigo Ag — that aims to rethink the seed business.

What sets this startup apart in the seed world is the names involved: from Ponsi Trivisvavet, who was with Indigo Ag and before that headed up the seed division at Syngenta, and is the Inari CEO; to Michael Mack, former president of Syngenta, who is Inari’s board chairman.

But there’s more than a Syngenta background here. Trivisvavet was chief operating officer of Indigo Ag before coming to Inari, while Mack stepped down from Syngenta in 2015 and had time to consider the potential for the plant breeding business. The rest of the team includes a vast array of experts, both in finance and seed technology, aiming to move the needle on plant breeding innovation.

One name that may sound familiar is Julie Borlaug. Proud of her grandfather Norman and his work to create the Green Revolution, she’s the vice president of communications and public relations for the business. She recently talked with Farm Progress about the new company.

While Inari press releases talk about being a new approach to plant breeding, what does that mean? The company’s website shares some ideals and goals, but little more.

“That’s the whole point of the launch,” Borlaug said. “We want you curious. We were founded by Flagship Pioneering — it’s not a venture capital company, it’s a company that grows ideas from within.”

Borlaug explained that Inari is one of Flagship Pioneering’s newest companies, and “hopefully their largest.” Based in Cambridge, Mass., the new firm draws on the tech world as well as the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, which is nearby.

But what sets this company apart? She noted that Inari will target the status quo of the seed business. “All of us at Inari think the agriculture model seems to be stuck in status quo, or a bit broken,” Borlaug said. “The negative stereotypes ag has, whether right or wrong, are a challenge.”

Instead, Inari leadership wants to create a new model and a new horizon for the plant breeding industry and take that culture through the company, she said.

Taking that new approach
Borlaug noted that Mack is excited about the potential of this new approach, which will merge the latest plant breeding technologies with the newest data analysis tools to bring top-performing plants to market faster. The company has a stated goal of reducing plant breeding time and cost, using what its press statement said is a “unique combination of biological and data sciences.”

In fact, Borlaug said the company is working to cut breeding time by two-thirds and reduce development costs by up to 90% for partners. Those are challenging targets to hit.

The company is already hard at work on its first products. Borlaug explained that the firm working on research and development in its Cambridge labs with 40-plus doctorate-level scientists on staff.

“We’re bringing four different scientific disciplines together — biology, agronomy, data science and software engineering,” she said. “What’s been done in the life sciences world we’re bringing to plant breeding, with innovative breakthroughs for agriculture.”

And the firm is already reaching out to partner with more players in the ag space. It’s already working with Texas A&M University and the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, and “in the next few weeks, we’ll announce more international partners and seed partners,” Borlaug added. “We like to say that we can’t do it all alone. We’re not going to be one company that does everything; we have to have partners along the value chain to get where we need to go.”

Talk of revolutionizing plant breeding these days turns to gene editing, and Borlaug said Inari is using not only the popular CRISPR technology, but also other tools that are opening doors to small, new companies that can compete with larger firms. “Gene editing is part of the evolution of the genomic revolution,” she added.

Borlaug noted that Inari will stay on the plant breeding side of agriculture and aim to find solutions “not just for today’s challenges, but for those of the next 15 years,” she said. “We don’t have a past pipeline of science; we can look ahead.”

You can learn more about the company at inari.com.

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