Cibus Readies Enhanced Crops for Push into Canada, and Beyond

Xconomy San Diego — 

After raising $57 million in a Series B round of venture funding, the San Diego agricultural biotech Cibus Global is laying the groundwork to introduce its first commercial product in Canada.

Cibus introduced its first enhanced crop—an herbicide-resistant strain of canola—in the U.S. about two years ago, CEO Peter Beetham said Wednesday in an interview with Xconomy. But of the 22 million acres that grow canola in North America, Beetham said about 20 million are in Canada. So, “the big launch really is next year in Canada,” Beetham said.

After that, he said Cibus is looking to introduce its herbicide-resistant canola in China, Europe, and Australia. In the meantime, the company is working to add more specialized traits to canola, and to expand its product line by introducing other crops with improved characteristics.

The company has raised slightly more than $57 million to carry out these plans, Beetham said. (While the company closed its Series B round about a year ago, the required paperwork was only filed with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission on July 27.) The CEO declined to say how much Cibus has raised altogether, but acknowledged it’s over $100 million. Apart from some strategic investors, such as Israel’s Makhteshim-Agan, Cibus has not identified its investors. Beetham said they include individual investors, institutional investors, and biotech venture funds.

To Beetham, these may be the most exciting times of his career. He earned his doctorate in plant molecular virology in Brisbane, Australia, 20 years ago, and has spent much of his ensuing career advancing technologies to enhance certain genetic traits in such crops as canola, potatoes, flax, and rice.

Cibus (pronounced see-bus) has managed to avoid controversies over genetically modified organisms, or GMOs, because it says its technology is not transgenic—that is, Cibus is not inserting a foreign gene into plant species. Cibus says it instead uses a simple gene repair mechanism to substitute a single letter in a single base pair of the gene that controls a particular trait. The company says its approach amounts to a kind of accelerated hybridization, or cross-breeding, that relies on a process that exists in nature to enhance key traits.

“Cibus is really leading this charge in non-transgenic, or non-GMO breeding,” Beetham said. “There’s a huge amount of genetic potential in crops that we haven’t realized yet.”

Cibus photos used with permission (Photo by Sandy Huffaker/Cibus)

Cibus lab in San Diego

Beetham said the holy grail has always been to produce a series of enhanced traits in crops that are beneficial along the agricultural product cycle that extends from a farmer’s fields to a supermarket’s produce section. Such traits include drought tolerance, resistance to herbicides, improved uptake of nutrients like nitrogen, and staying fresh longer after harvest. Selecting for such traits could be crucial in a time when most scientists expect that climate change will intensify droughts and reduce arable farmland, Beetham said.

At the same time, he said “Consumers are becoming more diligent about what they want to see in their fridges and dinner plates. That’s true around the world.”

With consumer resistance to GMO crops and higher costs to develop transgenic crops, Cibus says the benefits of its technology include:

—Precise trait development that can achieve both selectable and non-selectable traits

—Faster product development than both traditional breeding and transgenic approaches

—Simultaneous targeting of multiple traits and the capability to combine multiple traits in a single crop.

—Clear regulatory path in target markets, and the promise of global acceptance for its products both in commerce and in farming.

“Food safety is really important,” he added. “A lot of agriculture is looking at food safety, but also food security and food sustainability.”