Trace Genomics launches a 23andMe for farms, raises $4 million to improve the world’s food supply

A San Francisco startup called Trace Genomics wants to help farmers diagnose and improve the health of the soil where they want to raise crops before it’s harvest time and too late to change course.

So the startup has developed a soil testing kit and “pathogen panel,” that tells the growers of high-value crops, like berries or lettuce, whether or not their soil has harmful bacteria or fungi in it.

The concept has been seen in the human health world in services like 23andMe, or uBiome. But Trace Genomics claims to be the first to conduct rapid “microbiome” testing and data analysis in farms.

Founded by Diane Wu and Poornima Parameswaran in January 2015, Trace Genomics has also raised $4 million in venture funding in a round led by Refactor Capital, joined by Fall Line Capital, Viking Global and Illumina, the genome sequencing tech firm.

Trace Genomics also participated in Illumina’s corporate accelerator, which only accepts four companies per batch.

Trace Genomics' early employees.

Trace Genomics’ early employees.

Refactor cofounder and General Partner Zal Bilimoria explained, “Healthy soil breeds healthy crops. There are harmful pathogens and beneficial organisms that live in the soil and interact during the whole planting season and through harvest. Trying to understand what is in the soil, biologically, would be a really important data set for farmers. But it is not even usually available today to them.”

The investor believes Trace Genomics testing will appeal to farmers who can use it to make cost-saving decisions about what types of fertilizers, pesticides or other treatments to put in their soil, how to irrigate, or whether or not to switch crops completely.

Today, Trace is making its service available broadly to the agriculture industry and other plant pathology researchers. The company will charge $199 per test, with bulk discounts for customers who order a large number of them, for example, large companies that lease out land to growers or very large farms.

Trace Genomics tested its science and software for about a year with lettuce and strawberry farmers in California, the cofounders said, before launching its 23andMe-like service for farmers.

“Fungal diseases like verticillium and sufarium have been resurgent in Salinas,” Parameswaran explained. “Prior to this, farmers were using toxic compounds called methobromides to sterilize their soil. But the government has completely banned these.”

While the company has started out with a focus on finding and preventing the spread of harmful pathogens to crops, Parameswaran said Trace is aiming to build up its database until the company has a “fingerprint” of every farm on the planet, and can “stabilize the world’s food system.”

A Trace Genomics report helps farmers easily understand if their soil contains crop-killing pathogens.

A Trace Genomics report lets farmers easily see if their soil contains crop-killing pathogens.

The idea is not just to identify, predict and prevent disease from the known, harmful strains of microbes in the soil, but to also begin to understand which microbes are beneficial to the soil, and help farmers grow those, Wu added.

Refactor’s David Lee said one reason his firm backed Trace Genomics was that the company, which has software and analytics at its core, is delivering pathogen reports to farmers in a few weeks’ time that they could only get in a few months, previously.

“Speed is critical to farmers. If they can’t make adjustments in the field quickly,” Lee said, “there’s a possibility they can lose an entire season of profits.”

Prior to founding Trace Genomics, Parameswaran and Wu both did doctoral research with Nobel Prize-winning scientist Andrew Z. Fire at Stanford in the departments of microbiology and immunology and genetics, respectively. Wu also worked in a senior engineering role developing predictive analytics and other data science projects for Palantir.