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 are driving up yield and nutrition while driving down cost and harmful environmental impacts. It’s happening in healthcare as well, leveling the playing field for care and addressing chronic, life-altering conditions in new ways.
This disruption is having an outsized impact on iSelect and the companies we invest in simply because many of our portfolio companies operate in these industries. To put it modestly, many of them are responsible for driving these innovations forward.
That said, 2021 was an exciting year for us at iSelect with a number of notable exits, investments and commercialization moves at our portfolio companies. Below are just a few of the highlights.
Benson Hill Went Public
In May, crop genomics company Benson Hill, one of iSelect’s core portfolio companies, announced plans to go public via SPAC, a deal that was completed on September 30, 2021, valuing the company at around $1.35 billion. The more supported the company’s continued growth in the $140 billion plant-based meat segment and broader $5 trillion agri-food industry, offering a pure-play ESG investment opportunity tied to improving human health and driving decarbonization.
As iSelect Managing Partner described it: “This is simply the start of a transformation in Food and Health. We have been investing in this space for 7 years, long before others realized. It will take a little time for the public markets to fully grasp what we have seen in the private markets. We are just getting started. Benson is the cornerstone.”
iSelect Partnered with The Nature Conservancy
As part of its effort to “encourage cross-sector commitment to innovations that target the specific issue of soil health,” global nonprofit The Nature Conservancy (TNC) invested via iSelect in five of our portfolio companies including Growers Edge, Kula Bio, Pattern Ag, Stoney Creek Colors and SwarmFarm.
“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 challenge.”
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 in order to help us make more BFY options a reality with the use of rare sugars.”
Kula Bio Closed a $50M Series A Round
Working on new technologies to remove nitrogen from the air and put it into the soil, Kula Bio’s Kula-N platform attracted the attention of Chris Sacca’s Lowercarbon Capital, which led their Series A round at a 4.2x value increase. Although it closed in 2022, the deal had been in the works since late 2021. Kula Bio’s technology also “energizes” the natural bacteria that produce this effect with a carbon-rich energy source that allows the bacteria to build up larger-than-normal stores of nutrients.
“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 a lot of 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 that 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 previous 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, in addition to informing how we grow, separate, and treat our cranberries to optimize for target health benefits and sustainability.”