Agricultural Biotech Cibus Expanding as Launch of First Enhanced Crop Nears

[Corrected 10/28/10, 9:45 am. See below.] San Diego-based Cibus Global held an open house last night at the company’s new headquarters, which gave me an opportunity to get an update from CEO Keith Walker on the agricultural biotech’s growth spurt since last year.

The startup, which officially spun out of Pennsylvania-based ValiGen in late 2001, is marking the commercial introduction of its first enhanced crop—an herbicide-resistant strain of canola—in coming weeks. Cibus also plans to expand its workforce, from 52 to 60 employees by the start of 2011, and has moved its headquarters into a refurbished leased facility once occupied by La Jolla Pharmaceuticals. The impressive, platinum LEED-certified space might even mark the beginning of a tech resurgence among the vacancies that pockmark Sorrento Valley’s Nancy Ridge Drive.

Keith Walker

Keith Walker

“It’s been a fabulous 15 to 18 months for us,” Walker says. “We’ve done almost $50 million worth of transactions on behalf of the company with corporate partners.”

[Corrected to explain the technique used by Cibus does not insert an entire gene] Cibus, for everyone who neglected to take Latin, is roughly translated as “food for man.” The company uses its proprietary “Rapid Trait Development System” technology to achieve a desired trait, such as resistance to a widely used weed killer, in certain crops it has targeted. Cibus has managed to sidestep harsh protests over genetically modified organisms, or GMOs, because its technology is not transgenic—that is, Cibus is not inserting a foreign gene into a plant species. Rather, the company says it uses a simple gene repair mechanism to change a single letter in a single base pair of the gene that controls a particular trait. Making such a small change, using a process that exists in Nature, changes the binding site for the herbicide molecule, according to Peter Beetham, who is the senior vice president for research at Cibus.

[Revised to clarify the company’s standing in Europe] “Under current regulations, we would be seen as non-GM” in Europe, where the opposition to genetically modified crops is particularly intense, Beetham says.

Cibus greenhouse

Cibus greenhouse

In coming weeks, Walker says, the company is launching its first commercial product, a herbicide-resistant strain of canola, in California and North Dakota. Walker says it will also mark the company’s first taste of product revenue. The company expects to generate most of its money from royalty payments from its agricultural seed and chemistry partners.

Cibus has not raised capital “in a classic venture capital sense,” says Walker, who held a variety of management positions at Mycogen, the San Diego agricultural biotech founded in 1982 that was eventually acquired by a subsidiary of Dow Chemical. The company’s early funding came primarily from individual investors, and most of the later funding has been generated through a variety of strategic partnerships, such as Brett-Young Seeds of Winnipeg, Canada.

Walker left Mycogen in the late 1990s, and founded an agricultural biotech in 1998 that later merged with ValiGen—which became one of the corporate victims of the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

“ValiGen was scheduled to close a financing on Sept. 14, 2001, and the events of 9/11 caused that to collapse,” Walker recalls. “So in November of 2001, a core group of very loyal and committed investors pulled some seed capital together, and we set up out here.”

Bruce V. Bigelow was the editor of Xconomy San Diego from 2008 to 2018. Read more about his life and work here. Follow @bvbigelow

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