Roger Salameh VP Commercial Development, Benson Hill

When Johannes Gutenberg invented moveable type nearly six centuries ago, he jump-started the spread of knowledge across Europe and helped ignite the Renaissance.  When mainframes morphed into personal computers beginning in the 1980s, something similar happened – lower-cost technology led to a rapid democratization of knowledge.

The new technologies of our time which will fuel innovation in biological systems today are gene editing, computational biology and artificial intelligence (AI).  Together, they are enabling vast new possibilities for lower cost innovation in agriculture and food production.

Only a few years ago, the technology required to develop improved crops through genetic modification or even advanced breeding was so expensive, and required so much expertise, that only a few very large companies could afford to participate.  For example, commercializing a transgenic crop – in which a gene from an unrelated plant or organism is inserted into a host plant’s genome to produce a desirable trait, like insect resistance – took an average of 13 years and involved a price tag of $130 million.  Only companies like Monsanto (now Bayer), Syngenta and DowDuPont could play.

But the economic and regulatory landscapes have shifted with the recent development of new gene editing techniques like CRISPR and advances in computational biology and artificial intelligence (AI).  Now scientists have the tools to improve crops in much less time and much lower cost – and yet with greater precision.

Democratizing Innovation

CRISPR and other enabling technologies call two fundamental realities into consideration – the wide range of opportunities presented by lowering the economic barriers for innovation, and the equally wide range of challenges confronting agriculture and global food systems. The full impact can be realized when a robust community of innovators is empowered with these new capabilities, coupled with fresh partnering and innovation models, to solve the very complex issues facing our food production system.  

Our company was founded on this mission. We didn’t want to try to own the world’s only printing press or computer, so to speak. We chose instead to empower as many partners as possible across the food and ag value chain to achieve their own product development goals.  We developed a crop design platform we call CropOS™ with applications in predictive breeding and gene editing that includes a portfolio of CRISPR nucleases as well as the computational ability to identify gene targets for editing. In other words, we developed an end-to-end toolbox that, when couple with our partners’ capabilities, has the potential to revolutionize the food production system as we know it.

We are committed to working with everyone from seed developers to food and ingredient suppliers, to enable sustainable plant-based improvements that are farmer and consumer-centric, and that give us all food that’s healthier, tastier and more sustainable.

The Innovation Challenge

With this mission comes a challenge and an opportunity — not only for us, but to our entire industry.  That challenge is how to use R&D in new ways, because the range of opportunities is ever-expanding.

For instance, many food companies think of innovation in terms of packaging, marketing, supply chain management (think cold storage). These are all of course important innovations, but what if we could create the innovation at the plant/seed level? What if we could focus on farmer and consumer benefits simultaneously?

Tomatoes are one good example.  It’s now actually less expensive and more sustainable to develop tomatoes through gene editing to taste better or last longer on the shelf than it is to build an entire supply chain–packaging and materials–around a product that requires additional care before it gets to the consumer.  And there are countless other examples, because in the new landscape opened through the combination of AI and gene editing, every crop can be a target, any trait a consideration.

A breadth of successful outcomes is possible when R&D leaders creatively consider what opportunities these technologies create and recognize the value of collaboration to achieve them.

Click here for additional resources, including a PDF of the June 4 presentation

Click here to listen to the June 4 webinar, Enabling Innovation with CRISPR Gene Editing with Matt Begemann, Associate Director of Genome Editing & Trait Discovery.