Digital Farming Attracts Cash to Agtech Startups

The agricultural technology sector experienced the biggest year to date in number of deals, says a report published January 31 by online investment marketplace AgFunder. Seed-stage companies in the sector saw an unprecedented $230 million in investment in 2016 alone—a 77% increase over 2015—and at least 20 new accelerators dedicated to agtech startups popped up globally in the same period. Biotech companies took a slice of that investment, invigorated in part by access to powerful cloud computing, sophisticated algorithms, and gene editing tools such as CRISPR. For the first time in years, young innovative plant biotechs may have a fighting chance at competing in a marketplace dominated by multinationals.

Benson Hill Biosystems, a St. Louis, North Carolina–based crop improvement and cloud biology company, aims to make big data analyses available to small players. The company offers a computational platform called CropOS that can crunch genetic and phenotypic data to guide breeders’ decisions on trait development and breeding regimes. It first developed the algorithms to help tweak photosynthesis. The company opened up the platform two years ago to other players in exchange for a fee or future royalties. The system runs on Amazon Web Services, a cloud computing platform that has been a huge enabler for small companies.

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