We’re living through one of the broadest periods of innovation and disruption in the last 50 years. What digital technology and connectivity did for the software business and Web 1.0 two decades ago is now expanding into new and potentially far more impactful areas. This includes industries like agriculture, where genomics, soil science, and other innovations drive yield and nutrition while reducing cost and harmful environmental impacts. It’s also happening in healthcare, leveling the playing field for care and addressing chronic, life-altering conditions in new ways. When AgTech, HealthTech, and innovation converge, Food is Health.
The disruption significantly affects iSelect and the companies we invest in, as numerous portfolio companies are at the forefront of these innovative industries. In 2021, iSelect experienced an exciting year with remarkable exits, investments, and commercialization progress among our portfolio companies. Here are some highlights.
Benson Hill Went Public
In May, Benson Hill, a trailblazing crop genomics company and one of iSelect’s key portfolio investments, revealed its ambitious plan to go public through a SPAC merger. Completed on September 30, 2021, this move elevated the company’s valuation to approximately $1.35 billion. This strategic decision propelled Benson Hill’s expansion in the booming $140 billion plant-based meat market and the vast $5 trillion agri-food industry. Furthermore, it presented a unique ESG investment opportunity directly linked to enhancing human health and promoting decarbonization.
As iSelect Managing Partner described it: “This is simply the start of a transformation in Food and Health. We have invested in this space for 7 years, long before others realized it. It will take a little time for the public markets to grasp what we have seen in the private markets fully. We are just getting started. Benson is the cornerstone.”
iSelect Partnered with The Nature Conservancy
In a bold move to inspire collaborative efforts toward groundbreaking innovations that address the critical issue of soil health, the renowned global nonprofit, The Nature Conservancy (TNC), invested in five iSelect portfolio companies. This strategic investment included Growers Edge, Kula Bio, Pattern Ag, Stoney Creek Colors, and SwarmFarm, all of which paved the way for a sustainable future in agriculture.
“Deteriorating soil health underpins many of the agricultural challenges facing us this century – from climate and biodiversity to food security and fresh water,” said TNC’s Director of Agricultural Innovation Renée Vassilos. “No other sector impacts the ground beneath our feet to the extent agriculture currently does. The science of soil health solutions is becoming more evident every day, but the pace of market-driven innovations has so far lagged the need for action. By putting our money where our mouth is, we’re optimistic about the potential of our portfolio companies to accelerate solutions to the soil health challenges.”
Bonumose Teamed Up with Hershey
Following an investment from The Hershey Company in early 2021, alternative sugar developer Bonumose announced plans in October to build a new $27M R&D and manufacturing facility near its Charlottesville, VA headquarters in partnership with the global chocolate giant.
Hershey said the move marks “an exciting next step in our BFY (aka Better For You) journey,” explaining that in addition to the Bonumose partnership, its internal team is “focusing R&D capabilities on initiatives such as recipe development and technology as well as advocating to the FDA for labeling exemptions to help us make more BFY options a reality with the use of rare sugars.”
Kula Bio Closed a $50M Series A Round
Pioneering innovative nitrogen-fixation technologies, Kula Bio’s Kula-N platform caught the eye of Chris Sacca’s Lowercarbon Capital, leading their Series A round with a remarkable 4.2x value increase. The groundbreaking deal, initiated in late 2021 and closed in 2022, highlights Kula Bio’s ability to “energize” natural bacteria with a carbon-rich energy source. This unique process enables bacteria to accumulate larger-than-normal nutrient stores, revolutionizing sustainable agriculture and soil health.
“Today, over 90% of fertilizer in use is still synthetic and a significant contributor to global greenhouse gas emissions and damage to local water supplies and land,” Bill Brady, founding CEO and director of Kula Bio, said in a statement. “Demand for our solution has been incredibly strong. We are committed to help farmers operate sustainably without sacrificing crop yield.”
Molecular Assemblies Joined a DOD Project for On-Demand DNA/RNA Vaccine Manufacturing
COVID-19 opened many eyes to the importance of speed when it comes to medical treatments and vaccines, especially in response to a pandemic. That’s why Molecular Assemblies signed on to help the Department of Defense’s R&D arm (aka DARPA) develop a rapidly scalable and deployable mobile platform for vaccine development. Its enzymatic synthesis is a way to replace cumbersome chemical synthesis technology that requires hazardous chemicals and extensive post-synthesis processing. Molecular Assemblies is receiving $100,000 in grant money per month through February 2023 as part of the program.
Brightseed Partnered with Ocean Spray
Of all the partnerships Brightseed announced last year, its work with Ocean Spray might be the most exciting because it leverages Brightseed’s artificial intelligence to “unlock new compounds inside the cranberry, powering next-generation health innovation in the superfruit’s healthy product line.” Eventually, this might lead to a comprehensive nutritional profile of the cranberry and unlock potential health benefits from its previously unknown bioactive compounds.
Said Katy Galle, Senior Vice President of Research & Development at Ocean Spray Cranberries: “Similar to how different grapes produce different wine varietals, each cranberry strain can be extraordinarily diverse in their phytochemical composition, resulting in different colors, flavor nuances, size, and a trove of health-promoting bioactive compounds. Our agreement with Brightseed puts us on a path to profiling our cranberry varieties and understanding their health potential like never before. The insights from this agreement will support us as we continue to innovate healthy products for our consumers and inform how we grow, separate, and treat our cranberries to optimize for target health benefits and sustainability.”