A peek into the world of genomics assisted breeding, India’s first deep science forum and more
TechSprouts Deep Science Forum 2023
This April, we conducted the first ever TechSprouts Deep Science Forum 2023 across Mumbai, Bangalore and Chennai in collaboration with Hello Tomorrow Asia Pacific. The objective of the event was to enable networking and collaboration between various stakeholders in the deep science technology ecosystem including researchers, startups, investors and corporates. Kick-started by a keynote address by Dr. Renu Swarup in Mumbai, the event was attended by over 200 people across the cities and had a lineup of panelists spanning different spectrums of the ecosystem. Some of the key names include Arun Dubey from Zenfold Ventures, Dr. Abdur Rub from Wadhawani Research Center for Bioengineering, Vibhore Sharma from Capital 2B, Poyni Bhatt from SINE, Dr. Hemang Shah from Qualcomm India, Ravi Bhola from K&S partners, Dr. Chandrashekhar Nair from Molbio Diagnostics, Ashwani Sai Ram from BASF Ventures among others. The events also saw presentations from deep science startups such as Manastu Space, D-Nome, Myoworks, Piatrika Biosystems, Ossus Renewables, Avisa Myko among others.
Content from TechSprouts
We are entering the third decade of synthetic biology. Many synbio products are either commercialized or on the verge of commercialization. However, scaling up the production while achieving price parities will require innovation in the processes and unit operations involved. We spoke to Subramani Ramachandrappa, founder of Laurus Bio (formerly Richcore Lifesciences) and Fermbox, about the challenges and potential solutions in the scale up of synthetic biology solutions.
Deep science funding updates
- Ossus Biorenewables, a company utilizing the chemical content of oil and gas industry effluents as a source of decentralized power such as hydrogen raised a pre-Series A funding of $2.4 M from Gruhas and Rainmatter Climate.
- Zero Cow Factory, a precision fermentation company developing animal free dairy products raised its seed round amounting to $4 M from Green Frontier Capital, GVFL and Pi Ventures along with Pascual Innoventures.
- InspeCity, which is developing robotic platforms and technologies for building the proposed city in space, has raised a seed round of $1.5 M.
- Biocon Biologics has entered into a new agreement with Serum Institute of Life Sciences for an equity investment of $150 M through the conversion of the $150 M loan provided to Biocon Pharma Limited, a wholly-owned subsidiary of Biocon Limited. This takes the total investment by Serum Institute of Life Sciences into Biocon Biologics to $300M at a valuation of $6 Billion. As per the new arrangement, Biocon Biologics will have access to 100 million doses of vaccines annually together with the distribution rights to Serum’s vaccine portfolio, which will add to Biocon Biologics’ product portfolio for global markets.
Deep science ecosystem updates
- ISRO successfully conducted the landing experiment of the Reusable Launch Vehicle. This is part of a series of experiments being conducted to test the reusability of the vehicle, which will eventually be scaled up to become the first stage of India’s reusable two-stage orbital launch vehicle.
- Speciale Invest announced a Rs 200 cr growth fund to support deeptech start-ups in their growth journey.
- Government of India (GOI) approved the Indian Space Policy (ISP) 2023 to help regulate and boost private sector participation in the space sector. The ISP will also look to increase investments in the space sector from private companies in India.
- Government of India also approved the National Medical Devices Policy 2023 with an aim to reduce the import dependence of medical devices to 30% in the next few years from around 80% currently. The GOI is aiming to drive the growth in the domestic medical devices sector and hit $50 billion in the next five years.
News from the research community
- Researchers from the Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore, have detected two mechanisms by which a protein in Salmonella called SopB avoids being destroyed by the immune system. This can help understand foodborne diseases caused by Salmonella and develop better therapies.
- A multi-institutional study on dengue, led by the Indian Institute of Science, has shown that the virus causing the disease has evolved dramatically over the last few decades in the Indian sub-continent and are very different from the original strains used to develop the vaccines.
Deep science thoughts
The rise of genomics-assisted breeding
At Ankur Capital, we remain committed to studying, understanding and backing cutting-edge innovation to increase the efficiency, climate-friendliness and resilience of agriculture. One of the biggest trends in agricultural R&D in the past two decades has been the rapid emergence and adoption of new-age seed breeding tools as well as genetic editing techniques such as CRISPR. These advances have gone hand-in-hand with an ever-increasing need for better seeds and crop varieties, whether it is to make them higher yielding to cater to an expanding population, more climate resilient with the onset of anthropomorphic climate change, or to guard them against a plethora of pests.
Conventional plant breeding techniques, despite being the mainstay for centuries, come with a few disadvantages, primarily that variety development can take over a decade, which in turn also makes it an expensive process. Now, however, we can sequence a plant’s genome and analyse its growth and behavior at a more granular level. The explosion in sequencing techniques and bioinformatics, as well as the ability to manipulate large datasets has led to the advent of a new paradigm: genomics-assisted breeding (GAB).
GAB relies on genomic data, and after rice was first sequenced in 2006, an enormous amount of plant genomic data has been collected. The availability of this data has led to improved gene-mapping strategies, in particular in our ability to map genomic data to phenomic performance. This understanding has accelerated the process of trait discovery, which in turn has made possible breeding plants with the express need to improve a very specific trait, e.g., breeding a new rice variety to have more amylose content.
GAB can take one of two broad forms: the first is a highly advanced version of conventional varietal creation that results from crossing certain parents, and the second is in genetically modifying plants directly with the aim of introducing beneficial traits. Both approaches are hugely versatile, and novel traits can be bred into crops even without genetic engineering. For example, HarvestPlus, an international research program has produced hybrid corn varieties that reduce vitamin A deficiency.
There have been over 130 publicly bred cultivars since the advent of the GAB paradigm, with some of the highlights being rice with bacterial blight and blast resistance, and wheat with rust resistance. In the private domain, of course, there have been many more. There are a number of companies, both large and small, that have developed proprietary technologies and platforms that use and leverage new-age breeding technologies.
Most recently, Syngenta, one of the world’s leading agtech companies, announced a partnership with Ginkgo Bioworks for screening a targeted genetic library for novel trait discovery, ultimately resulting in healthier and more resilient crops in the field. Not only that, Ginkgo also leverages its high-throughput screening and protein engineering technologies in partnerships with other major agricultural players, including Corteva, Bayer, Sumitomo, ADM, and Cargill. Benson Hill, a USA-based company which went public in 2021, has developed a proprietary platform called CropOS, which combines data science and machine learning with plant genetics.
There have also been a host of startups working in this space around the world. Inari Agriculture, headquartered in the US, has developed a platform called SEEDesign that combines predictive design and multiplex gene editing with CRISPR technology to develop novel grain varieties. A number of other companies have also developed similar platforms, such as Cibus’ Rapid Trait Development System (RTDS), Calyxt’s PlantSpring, and Phytoform Labs’ CRE.AI.TIVE as well as Piatrika Biosystems which is based in India.
Aside from full-stack solutions, so to speak, some companies are focusing on some specific niches in new-age plant breeding. For example, Rootility, an Israeli company, develops and uses innovative root-focused plant breeding methods which it most famously demonstrated in field-grown tomatoes. Solynta, a company based in the Netherlands, has pioneered some of the world’s first F1 hybrid potatoes using its patented technology.
Regulation across the globe is slowly keeping pace too, especially in the realm of genetically modified crops. Just last year, India granted environmental clearance for indigenously developed genetically modified (GM) mustard seed. The EU, too, famous for shunning GMO crops, is revisiting its policy on GM crops in its bid to reduce its overall carbon footprint.
These advances, both in the realms of academia and industry, mark an exciting time in agriculture and seed development. It is heartening to see industrial and commercial development taking place while incorporating the latest technological advances, as well as with participation from various stakeholders: governments and regulating bodies, farmers and seed breeders, venture capitalists, and large agricultural companies.