Indigo Harvests $156M to Boost Agtech R&D, Harness Crop Microbes

Xconomy Boston — 

In the past year, Indigo Ag has brought to the market five microbial seed treatments that help plants hold up to crop stresses, such as drought. The company now has its sights set on developing more products for more applications, and it has raised $156 million to support that work.

New investors Baillie Gifford and Activant Capital joined in the Series D funding round. Founding investor Flagship Pioneering also participated in the financing, as did the Alaska Permanent Fund, a previous investor.

The funding announcement on Tuesday is the first closing of the fund, and it could mark the largest agbio deal of the year, eclipsing the total raised so far this year by other agbio startups combined. According to a recent report from online investment marketplace AgFunder, agbio startups focused on crop production raised a total of $120.5 million across 17 deals in the first half of the year. Indigo says it has now raised more than $300 million in financing since its inception.

Indigo’s work focuses on beneficial microbes—the bacteria, viruses, and fungi that naturally coexist with plants. Some of these microbes work with plants, helping them overcome stresses that they face over a growing season. Indigo’s technology screens samples to identify beneficial microbes, which it then develops into a seed coating. Indigo launched its first product, a treatment for cotton plants, last year. Since then, Indigo has brought to the market microbial products for corn, wheat, soybeans, and rice.

Initially, Indigo’s research focused on helping crops perform better in drought. The company now says it is expanding its scope to address a broader range of crop stresses, including pests and disease. The company also says its research and development work will try to improve how efficiently plants use nitrogen, which is a key component for photosynthesis. Nitrogen fertilizers require a lot of energy and resources to produce; runoff from the fertilizers harms the environment.

Nitrogen use is an area of interest for other companies as well. Earlier this month, Bayer announced a $100 million joint venture with Boston startup Ginkgo Bioworks focused on engineering bacteria that can perform nitrogen fixation, the process of converting the gas into a form that plants can use. Indigo says its own work will focus on improving how plants take up and use nitrogen; the ultimate goal is to reduce the use of nitrogen fertilizers in agriculture.

Indigo’s growth plans include reaching farmers overseas. The company says that it has recently opened offices in Argentina and Australia.

Cotton field photo by Flickr user Kimberly Vardeman via a Creative Commons license.