For the founders of Trace Genomics, strawberries are the low-hanging fruit.
The company’s cofounders, Diane Wu and Poornima Parameswaran, are borrowing 23andMe’s model and applying it to agriculture. For $199, growers–and the suppliers that sell fertilizers and seeds to them–can collect a sample of soil from their crops’ roots using a special kit and send it back to Trace’s lab for analysis. The company will then share the results of its pathogen panel, which tests the sample for tiny organisms like bacteria, viruses, and fungi that are associated with plant blight. For now, the offering is limited to some 30 diseases affecting strawberries and lettuce.
I met with the pair in late July over lunch in Dogpatch, a part-industrial, part-residential neighborhood in San Francisco that is home to a growing number of biotech startups. We ordered salads before jumping into a discussion about the various microbial diseases that affect our fruit and vegetable supply.
“Think of soil as the immune system for crops,” says Parameswaran, a molecular biologist by training, between bites of a pear and butter lettuce salad. “And yet we know so little about it.”
Wu and Parameswaran are not the only ones pitching genomics tools to growers and suppliers, but they believe they have an edge. The pair, who met at the lab run by Nobel Prize-winning biologist Andrew Fire, say they have developed a novel way to clean up and extract information from dirty samples like soil. Their secret sauce isn’t just their team’s scientific knowledge, but their expertise in advanced computing disciplines like machine learning (Wu previously worked as a software developer on Palantir’s machine learning team).
Their goal isn’t just to deliver insights to farmers, but information they can act on. It’s still early days, but Trace says it is helping its customers determine how best to treat the soil and mitigate disease, as well as the crops that are the best fit for the soil. Today, it is primarily used for chemical interventions, like finding the optimal combination of fertilizers.
Trace, which currently has more than $4 million in the bank, is a recent graduate of DNA-sequencing giant Illumina‘s accelerator, which works with startups that are developing all manner of genomics applications. Both Trace and Illumina see potential in an emerging field called Metagenomics, which involves using genetic material recovered directly from environmental samples.
The timing is fortuitous for this crop of companies. Climate change is posing challenges to farmers and poses a threat to the control of pest and disease invasions, an estimated $220 billion a year problem in the U.S. alone. Agricultural genomics solutions are viewed by many as “key to the efficient development of crop varieties that are more climate-resilient and can be produced with a smaller environmental footprint,” says Wayne Allen Parrott, a professor of crop sciences at the University of Georgia.
Moreover, growers are under pressure from regulators to prevent contamination rather than respond to it after the fact. Such legislation as the Food Safety Modernization Act gave U.S. Food and Drug Administration, new authorities to regulate the way foods are grown, harvested, and processed.
Trace Genomics’ future depends on growers increasingly using its tool. If it can collect a large number of soil samples, in a manner similar to 23andMe, it can start to grow a database with longitundal information about soil, seeds and treatments depending on their location. “The more samples that Trace processes, the more powerful their database becomes, the more helpful their insights and actionable decisions become on a per-farm basis,” says Zal Bilimoria, a investor with Refactor Capital, which participated in Trace’s most recent funding round. One potential outcome might be for Trace to help growers determine the practices that are best for sustainability.
If Trace Genomics can prove that its science is robust and delivers actionable information, it has a shot at gaining wide adoption. Even in the more conservative beef industry, stakeholders are overcoming their reservations and adopting new technologies as they see their rivals do so, explains Jared Decker, an assistant professor of beef genetics and computational genomics. For that reason, he says, “I think we’ll continue to see different applications of genomics technologies.”