Agrivida Launches Field Production Of Engineered Plants, Plans C Round

Agrivida—the Medford, MA-based startup that is “engineering plants that can break themselves down into sugars,” according to founder and president R. Michael Raab—is scaling up.

The startup has been developing its technology in labs and greenhouses since 2003, and earlier this week announced that it had rolled out industrial-sized fields to grow its plants, which are modified for cheaper production of biofuels and animal feedstock.

The aim over the next two years is to produce more harvested material for its industry partners—like the Swiss agribusiness giant Syngenta (NYSE: SYT) —and also prove its technology out at production scale, Raab says. It will be announcing more industry partners in the coming months, he says.

Non-food plants have been targeted as sources of ethanol, but don’t easily break down into the sugar needed for biofuels. Agrivida engineers the plants with an enzyme that can remain dormant while the plant is growing, and then switched to active mode after the plant is harvested and ready for processing. Once active, the enzyme renders the plant more productive in yielding sugar, and enables ethanol developers to skip the expensive and harsh pre-treatments previously needed to break the plants down. (You can also read this piece Xconomy wrote last year for more details on the technology.)

“The plants we have made are more digestible, produce more sugar, are fully healthy, and indistinguishable from non-engineered plants,” Raab says.

The technology has gotten the most attention for its ethanol applications, but Raab says his startup is exploring its applications for animal feedstock. Engineering crops like sorghum or switchgrass to be more easily digested by animals may cut down on the need to use other grains, Raab says.

That could also help secure Agrivida’s future in an uncertain market for renewables. “The diversity of those products helps hedge risk,” Raab says. “There are still concerns about how quickly the cellulosic ethanol industry will develop if the government doesn’t support it.”

Agrivida is beginning to test out certain crops, and if all goes well, could license its enzyme technology for crops where major players like Monsanto own all the seed, and sell its own engineered seed products in more open markets, Raab says.

The company is also gearing up for its Series C round, Raab says. “As we announce our partners and show new data, it’s going to be a really attractive opportunity,” he says.

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