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seeds will produce the desired traits, allowing researchers to bypass what would ordinarily take multiple generations of experimentation, Crisp says.
Companies keep ownership of their data and one company can’t see another’s competitive work. But each new piece of biological information that CropOS uncovers becomes part of a blinded pool of data. The machine-learning capabilities of CropOS help the system improve and make better decisions over time, making the system more powerful and more predictive than the efforts of any one company working alone, Crisp explains.
“I like to refer to it as a community,” Crisp says. “Everyone shares the collective benefit of that platform.”
Benson Hill’s technology came out of research at the Donald Danforth Plant Science Center in St. Louis. Benson Hill licensed the technology from the center and formed in 2012. The company is named for Andrew Benson and Robin Hill, two scientists known for their contributions to photosynthesis research. Photosynthesis was Benson Hill’s initial focus, and the company’s technology can screen for the traits that improve the efficiency of that process.
When Benson Hill started, the company used CropOS for its own discovery efforts. The company still has its own internal discovery program. But as a small startup, Benson Hill does not have the resources to field test its discoveries. Instead, the company licenses traits to others. Agribusiness companies developing products from Benson-Hill-discovered traits include potato giant Simplot and Brazilian sugarcane researcher CTC. Benson Hill draws revenue from upfront payments, as well as additional fees to support ongoing research. These deals are also structured to pay Benson Hill royalties on products produced from successfully commercialized traits.
The pool of information feeding CropOS is getting bigger. Benson Hill recently signed on Beck’s Hybrids as a customer. The Atlanta, IN-based seeds company provides seeds to farmers throughout the Midwest. Beck’s plans to add CropOS to its own breeding tools with the goal of improving traits such as plant health, maturity, and yield. The Beck’s partnership followed an alliance with the National Corn Growers Association (NGCA), the corn industry’s largest organization with a membership that includes more than 40,000 farmers. Other small innovators gaining access to CropOS through the NCGA partnership include academic labs, small seed companies, and even some food companies that operate their own breeding operations.
Interest in big data tools in agriculture is evident in the growing investment in the space. “Decision support technology,” a category that includes big data software, accounted for $295 million invested in 46 deals in 2015, according to online agtech investment marketplace AgFunder. One of those deals was Benson Hill’s $7.3 million Series A round. The company is now seeking $15 million in a Series B round, which Crisp says will be used to further develop CropOS, as well as pursue applications of the technology in gene editing. Benson Hill is also looking for more partners to feed the data pool for CropOS.
“We’re really agnostic to the crop or the target,” Crisp says. “Our job is to build a robust tool that can be used by a large body of innovators.”