This week, longtime food and ag tech founder and investor Dave Friedberg announced on Twitter that he has taken over the CEO role for gene-editing focused agtech startup Ohalo Genetics. Ohalo, operating under stealth for the past four years, began its life within Friedberg’s investment and startup incubator The Production Board.
From Friedberg’s tweet:
“@ohalo uses gene editing to completely reimagine agriculture, creating new plant varieties in major crops that were not previously feasible, significantly increasing yields and productivity, ultimately helping farmers make more food using far less land, resources, and capital. After recently achieving some major breakthroughs, I now believe @ohalo could become one of the world’s most important businesses and will be dedicating myself to realizing its potential.”
The move comes one decade after Friedberg sold his first agtech startup, The Climate Corporation, to Monsanto for $1.1 billion. The sale of The Climate Corp was a milestone for the broader ag tech space as it marked the first time an ag tech startup had sold for over a billion dollars.
As Friedberg takes over Ohalo, the company has begun to lift the veil of secrecy. The timing of the decision to come out of stealth (as well as Friedberg taking over) likely has something to do with Ohalo’s recent wins in the form of positive outcomes from the USDA’s Regulatory Status Reviews (RSRs) of the company’s work on gene-edited potatoes.
An RSR is a request sent to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) to ask that the product, which in this case is a genetically modified plant in the form of a potato, not be regulated. Ohalo had two RSRs under consideration this year for its potato, one which focuses on higher concentrations of beta carotene – enhancing the overall health and nutrition value of the potato – and another which results in reduced glucose and fructose content in the potato, which, according to Ohalo, will reduce the adverse side effects that lead to significant spoilage during cold storage of potatoes.
In both cases, USDA’s APHIS agreed with Ohalo, essentially giving a green light for the product to move forward towards sale and consumption of the product within the U.S. without the additional oversight under 7 CFR part 340, the part of the Plant Protection Act of 2000 that gives the USDA regulatory oversight over genetically modified foods.
In the case of Ohalo’s approval (and other approvals under 7 CFR part 340), the USDA is saying that the alterations to the produce brought about using the gene-editing tools were possible through cultivation and that the risks posed by the changes were no more significant from a plant pest risk perspective than those introduced through traditional plant cultivation techniques.
Ohalo joins a cohort of gene-edited produce companies that have emerged in recent years as tools such as CRISPR Cas9 have matured and enabled breakthroughs in agriculture, healthcare, and pharma. While other ag-focused gene-editing startups such as Pairwise and Yield10 Bioscience have received significant funding over the past half-decade or so, the path towards commercialization has been slow for most and rocky for some. Benson Hill, an ag gene-editing startup with a billion-dollar valuation just two years ago, has started looking for strategic alternatives as it lays off staff.
As for the Production Board, where Friedberg has spent the majority of his time the past few years as he invested and spun up food and ag tech concepts around a variety of areas ranging from gene editing to bioreactors to beverage printing, he says he will continue to stay on some boards, while his team continues the investment work that he had been involved with on a day-to-day basis before the move.
“This is a big change for me personally, I haven’t been an operating CEO for 7+ years.. but the mind-blowing results the @ohalo team have accomplished make this decision a no-brainer,” said Friedberg.