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Summary:

Optimizing the combos of little organisms that live on plants could help feed the booming population of the future.

There are tons of tiny and diverse organisms that live on the crops that farmers grow and the soil that crops are grown in. And the right combination of these bugs can be the difference between crops thriving, or not.

On Monday a startup called BioConsortia is coming out of stealth with a product that uses the latest genetic tools to identify the right combo of microbes that it says can significantly boost the yield of crops, from soybeans to wheat to corn. The company — originally from New Zealand and now headquartered in Davis, Calif. — will sell its microbe solution in the form of treatment for crop seeds and soil additives.

BioConsortia's New Zealand facility.

BioConsortia’s New Zealand facility.

To back up the development and launch of its product, BioConsortia has raised $15 million from Khosla Ventures and Otter Capital. It’s also brought on a new CEO, Marcus Meadows-Smith, the former CEO of AgraQuest, a biotech company also in Davis that was sold to Bayer for $500 million. Khosla Ventures’ Andrew Chung, who led the firm’s investment, thinks the technology is transformational — he called it an “explosive opportunity in agriculture” — and compared it to a pharmaceutical tech platform that could reduce the time to market of a drug from 15 years to 3 to 5 years at a fraction of the cost.

Venture capitalists have grown increasingly interested in funding innovations for the agriculture industry, as farms have become increasingly high-tech and reliant on information technology, from sensor systems to big data analytics. Some startups are turning to next-gen computing technologies like drones for overseeing farms and robots that can spray pesticides on crop lines more efficiently than humans.

Identifying soil microbes

Identifying soil microbes

BioConsortia is capitalizing on the latest genetic technologies like next-gen DNA sequencing (which has also been advanced by computing) and genetic analysis of microbial communities (called Automated Ribosomal Intergenic Spacer Analysis). Some scientists think using genetics to identify, isolate and manage plant microbes could deliver a massive efficiency gain in agriculture over the coming years — one group’s recommendations are to use microbes to increase yields by 20 percent over the next 20 years. Meadows-Smith says that Monsanto, Syngenta, Bayer and Arysta have all been investing in agriculture microbe technologies.

As the world population booms to 9 billion people by 2050, the planet’s farms will need to deliver more food on the same amount of land. That means farms will need to be more efficient in the coming years, using both genetic technologies and computing and communication technologies.

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