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Changing the Game for a Game Changer

By Benson Hill

May 9, 2017

Leveraging Seed Genomics for Indoor Agriculture

May 5, 2017


The 5th Annual Indoor Ag-Con event took place this week marking an impressive demonstration of the role of innovation in agriculture. Amazing progress has been made in equipment, lighting, nutrient delivery and other components to leverage a growing market opportunity. Yet the industry struggles to achieve scale and sustainable profitability.

The component receiving relatively little innovation to date is the most fundamental in the system – the seed genetics that deliver product performance. It happens that the progress made to control the environmental components in indoor ag systems creates a powerful opportunity to leverage seed genomics, enabling intellectual property protection, product differentiation, and profitability.


Local, Local, Local
Currently a $500 million industry in the U.S., the market potential for indoor agriculture tops $9 billion, based only on the crops currently produced. A wave of food trends currently underway has the potential to propel the industry forward even further.

Indoor production manages to marry high tech with tradition to deliver the products consumers want with the values they trust in their food system.

“Local” providing year-round growing of nutrient-dense produce in any climatic conditions and with resiliency to supply shocks.

“Local” as an enabler of improved sustainability, reducing inputs used in production as well as transportation costs and loss as food waste.

“Local” as recognized in recent consumer studies to be an emerging category posed to surpass both organic and natural as a symbol of trust and transparency (Hartman Group, 2014).

The potential and progress is exciting, but optimizing the indoor environmental conditions using seed bred for the outdoors is like optimizing the race track but not the horse you are running.


Changing the Game
The great challenge in plant breeding is that the genetics (G) of the plant interact with and are impacted by the environment (E), and the environment varies considerably in outdoor fields – from moisture and temperature to soil microflora.

Because the Environment is not consistent, it is difficult to quantitatively describe or model, and we can’t fully comprehend the GxE interaction, which means we cannot fully optimize the genetics of the plant. We make progress, but we are always essentially playing defense.

Innovation in indoor agriculture has designed better controlled environments that allow us to change the game. With a consistent (or semi-consistent) environment and rapid cycling crops, we can optimize the testing system and dramatically accelerate breeding cycles and crop innovation. We can run trials that more precisely test and optimize the genetic part of the equation, so we can finally play offense and harness the full genetic potential of the plant.


Playing Offense with Cloud Biology
That genetic potential is enormous. In fact, the genetic code of a plant is more diverse and complex than that of a human. In many crops that have received relatively little genomics R&D attention to date, that genetic potential is also largely untapped.

That is where cloud biology comes in. Cloud biology combines powerful data analytics and biological knowledge with scalable cloud-based computing to predict biological outcomes and provide improved decision support, allowing researchers to bypass multiple generations of experimentation.

Benson Hill harnessed the power of cloud biology in CropOS™, a community platform in which our partners can contribute data to the system and access the vast data and analytics capabilities of cloud biology to accelerate their R&D efforts. CropOS uses machine learning to calibrate and grow smarter with every data set and test trial, strengthening the system’s predictive power, and it can be used with any crop and any target using any genomics tool – from breeding to gene editing to trait discovery.

By combining the predictive genomics power of CropOS with the environmental consistency of indoor agriculture systems, we can develop seed varieties with a preferred phenotype with greater speed, precision and accuracy than ever before.

We can optimize the genetics of the plant for the specific moisture, light intensity and other growing conditions optimized for a particular system.

We can broaden the range of crops suited for indoor agriculture and expand the portfolio of a system.

We can target traits from yield to taste, creating proprietary products to differentiate a system.

And we can do this without requiring major R&D investment – either in infrastructure or manpower.  With cloud biology and CropOS, size and cost are not barriers to genomics innovation.

Our vision is a diverse community of innovators empowered to leverage the full value of plant genomics to help meet the needs of consumers while taking care of our planet and its natural resources.

Combining the power of genomics with the systems of indoor agriculture and the innovative spirit of the community creates an exciting opportunity to drive scalability and profitability, benefiting the industry and all of us who depend on a diverse, sustainable, resilient food system.

– Matt

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