The Ag Innovation Showcase began on Monday at the Donald Danforth Plant Science Center in St. Louis. In its seventh year, the three-day event includes panel discussions on trends in agriculture and technology and gives startups a chance to find investors and partners.
This year, 19 early stage companies will present to possible investors. Those companies are focused on precision agriculture, renewables and sustainables, biological solutions and farming innovations.
Three of the presenting companies are based in St. Louis. St. Louis Public Radio has profiled all three to give you a glimpse of what’s happening in ag innovation:
The company was founded in 2011 in St. Louis. It uses the Spanish pronunciation of apse (AP’ see), which is the vaulted or domed area in a church.
Before learning what Apse does, you need a quick primer on RNA interference (RNAi). It’s a biological process where RNA molecules inhibit gene expression. In the last 10 years scientists in biotechnology and medical fields have begun looking at how to use RNAi to prevent disease and enhance certain traits in plants and animals.
Apse is involved in topical RNAi application in broad acre agriculture, which is a non-GMO technology. CEO John Killmer said two of the biggest issues with topical application are cost and delivery.
"The RNA—being a natural molecule is more accustomed being inside cells---it’s very fragile when you take it out of that cellular environment, so it can be degraded," Killmer said. "For instance, if you want an insect crawling along on a leaf’s surface to ingest some RNA to make it sick or make it go away, the RNA has to be stable. We believe the system we use to produce RNA will help stabilize it."
Killmer said the estimated cost of RNA is about $50 a gram, currently, with about a gram per acre needed. He said Apse’s goal is to bring that down to $2 per gram.
Forrest Innovations was founded in 2013 with locations in Israel, Brazil and northern California. Earlier this year the company brought its headquarters to St. Louis. Its name, said U.S. site lead Roy Borochov, comes from the movie “Forrest Gump,” whose character said if he was going anywhere, he was running.
Forrest Innovations is hoping to move quickly to market by early 2018 with its RNAi product solutions for two separate problems: a disease in citrus fruit called “citrus greening,” and mosquito-borne illnesses.
Citrus greening is a bacterial disease that’s affecting orange crops in nearly every part of the world. In Florida, the disease was found in orange trees back in 2005 and has cut crop production in half. Borochov said they’re working to treat the trees’ reaction to the bacteria, not the bacteria itself.
"We’re only trying to help the tree not to overreact," Borochov said. "It’s similar to the reaction of some humans to bee stings. Some people are sensitive to bee stings and that overreaction may kill them."
Borochov said mosquito-borne illnesses, such as malaria and dengue fever, kill more people world-wide than any other diseases. He said Forrest Innovations’ goal is not to eliminate the mosquito population, but instead turn off certain genes in mosquitoes.
"One of them is to look at genes that make them resistant to pesticides and turn them off..." Borochov said. "We have a molecule and a delivery system where we took resistant mosquitoes and turned off their resistance and made the susceptible again."
He said other approaches include treating mosquito larva to turn off genes in order to make them more sensitive to the virus they’re carrying. That way Borochov said the insect would die before being able to transmit a disease.
GlucanBio LLC was founded in 2012 with technology developed by Dr. James Dumesic of the University of Wisconsin and help from the Center for Biorenewable Chemicals at Iowa State University and Nidus Partners here in St. Louis.
GlucanBio is focused on using biomass (plant matter) to create renewable chemicals. CEO Larry Clarke said they can take waste from crops and break it down into three components: hemicellulose, cellulose, and lignin.
"It’s a simple process. It’s chemistry," Clarke said. "Basically, we use solvent and it’s a solvent that’s actually used in small doses in food additives, so it’s safe. We hope to commercialize it and show this can be placed anywhere around the world."
Clarke said those three primary components are turned into downstream commodities. One of those is furfural, a chemical used in the foundry business for making iron and steel resin molds. Clarke said there’s also great promise in breaking down lignin into carbon fiber and carbon materials.
"That one from a research standpoint is extremely exciting," he said. "Carbon fiber is being used on Boeing’s 787 Dreamliner in the wings. It’s incredibly strong and incredibly light."
Clarke said there is a range of biomass they can draw from, including corn cob, corn stover, bagasse (from sugar cane), and oat hulls.
"We’re not having to use fossil fuels to produce some of these products," he said. "It is absolutely renewable."
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