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AI startup speeds up the creation of climate-resilient crops


an illustration of a corn stalk and DNA strands intermingling
Image Credits: Bryce Durbin / TechCrunch

Creating crops that’ll endure climate change — think worse droughts, heat waves and pests — is a time-consuming and costly feat. Avalo is betting its machine learning models can speed that process up and make it a whole lot cheaper too. 

The Durham, North Carolina–based startup, which pitched onstage at the TechCrunch Disrupt Startup Battlefield competition, doesn’t edit plant genes or breed crop varieties the traditional way. Instead, the AI company aims to supercharge crop breeding by quickly identifying the genetic basis of complex traits, such as heat tolerance.

In doing so, Avalo avoids much of the guesswork and waiting typically involved in crop breeding. CEO Brendan Collins explained in a call with TechCrunch, “We actually don’t care about the plant expressing the [desired] trait in the field, because we just genotype all the seedlings, and we know which ones are going to be the winners and which ones are going to be the losers already.”

Instead of testing crosses annually, Avalo “can bring seedlings into growth chambers and greenhouses and breed them under accelerated conditions,” said Collins. For most row crops, that translates to “four development cycles” in a single year versus just one, the CEO added.

The process is based on Avalo science chief Mariano Alvarez’s post-doctoral studies at Duke. TechCrunch did a deep dive into it two years ago, when Avalo had only secured a $3 million seed round. The startup has since raised another $3 million and today announced its intent to raise a $10 million Series A this fall.

According to Collins, Avalo proved its process recently when it created a fast-maturing broccoli variety for a vertical-farming startup called Iron Ox. Collins says Avalo succeeded, only you can’t try it yet, because the effort collapsed as the vertical-farming bubble popped earlier this year.

Avalo is still working with greenhouses to get the advanced broccoli on the market, but the CEO said he is now more focused on the startup’s other efforts. They include aiding in the cultivation of a latex-producing dandelion; finding and licensing valuable traits, such as pest-resistance, in soy and corn; and a just-launched effort to cultivate drought-tolerant cotton.

(Avalo’s co-founder and COO, Rebecca White, grew up on a cotton farm in Texas, Collins told TechCrunch. It happens that Collins and White were en route to the COO’s family farm when they pulled over to take my call.)

Ultimately, Collins sees Avalo as a company that will democratize access to world-class genomics.

“Since the 1950s, corn has had a 300% yield increase, and that’s because so much effort and money has been put into corn,” the CEO said before posing a question: “What could agriculture look like if we’re able to give that same level of resources for a fraction of the cost to all the other crops in the world?”

Evolving staples to withstand heat and drought isn’t agriculture’s (nor agtech’s) sole response to climate change.

Resilient crops overlooked or even previously outlawed by colonizers, such as amaranth, are getting renewed attention. Rising temps mean famers are also putting money toward crops that would not have previously thrived in their respective growing regions. That’s why you’ll see more mangos and avocados in Northern California and more grapevines in the U.K.

On the tech side, numerous companies are exploring ways to re-create beloved flavors with fewer resources. Berkeley Yeast modifies yeast to taste hoppy, giving brewers the option to ditch water- and energy-intensive hops altogether. Atomo, a “beanless coffee” startup, takes a less academic route; it combines roasted date seeds and chicory to make its oat lattes, and in doing so it avoids the cultivation of water-intensive coffee beans.

There are also plenty of tech firms exploring new ways to limit water and fertilizer waste, such as Verdi, SupPlant, Pivot Bio and Carbonwave. Avalo has some comparably more-direct competitors in crop discovery, too, including Keygene and Benson Hill.

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