Cross breeding plants is a time-tested practice for producing hybrids with higher crop yields. But finding the plant parents with the genetics that will generate the best hybrid takes time. Hi Fidelity Genetics says its artificial intelligence approach speeds up the process and reduces costs.
As Hi Fidelity ramps up its research and development, the Durham, NC-based startup has raised $8.5 million in Series A financing. Fall Line Capital and Finistere Ventures co-led the funding.
Breeders are typically interested in traits that will make a plant hardier in tough conditions, which boost the chances for higher yields. Hi Fidelity is focused on breeding plants with stronger roots that will still do well under dry conditions. This is important because crop yields and prices are becoming more volatile with climate change, and the main factor affecting yield from one year to the next is the availability of water, said company co-founder Philip Benfey, a Duke University biology professor, during a North Carolina Biotechnology Center forum in March where he talked about Hi Fidelity.
Hi Fidelity claims it has developed corn hybrids that can compete against seed currently on the market. Those hybrids are better because they have stronger roots, the company contends. Big ag companies are already breeding with root systems in mind, but it’s hard to assess what’s happening with those roots underground, Benfey said at the forum. Hi Fidelity breeds plants with better roots by using a combination of hardware and software. The company has developed a wireless, in-ground sensor system, called RootTracker, that monitors plant roots. These sensors allow the company to map roots from individual plants and identify the best plants for breeding, such as those with long root systems.
Data from RootTracker are fed into Hi Fidelity’s artificial intelligence breeding software platform, called Luther. The software predicts which two parental lines will produce a plant hybrid that has better root traits. Benfey said the technology can predict which hybrids are best suited to a particular region.
“The problem with breeding for better root systems is that there is not one root system that fits all,” he said at the forum. “What we want to do is breed for root systems that are tailored to a particular environment and particular weather conditions.”
Hi Fidelity says it will initially focus on corn and cotton. The company is also expanding its executive team. Bill Neibur, former global head of R&D for Pioneer Dupont and most recently the CEO of China-based Origin Agritech, has joined the startup as chief operating officer and president.
Benfey had previously co-founded GrassRoots Biotechnology, an agbio company that went on to partner with Monsanto, which acquired the startup for an undisclosed sum in 2013. After Hi Fidelity was founded in 2014, the startup raised seed funding in 2016, Benfey said. In the Series A round, the other investors disclosed were Gro Alliance, KdT Ventures, Prairie Crest Capital, S2G, and Tom Farms.