Posted on December 2015 | Dan Watkins

Why We Invested in Benson Hill Biosystems

Mercury Fund recently invested in the $7.3 million Series A financing of Benson Hill Biosystems. The company is a St. Louis and Research Triangle Park-based agriculture biology startup. Using a unique computational biology platform
(PSKbase) and novel experimental platforms for high efficiency translation into model plants, Benson Hill is developing technology to boost crop yield in all kinds of plants. Our fundamental thesis with Benson Hill is that, in a world with a rapidly expanding population and growing climate volatility, crop yield will become increasingly important.

PSKbase, developed at the preeminent plant research center in the world, the Danforth Plant Science Center, gives the company an unrivaled ability to use massive amounts of data to predict genotype-phenotype relationships that can drive crop improvement. The platform allows for cross species analysis so the output improves as more data is included – corn, wheat, potatoes, soy, cane, even eucalyptus trees benefit from the genetic and experimental information from the other species. The result is the ability to create improved crops much more rapidly than current techniques allow. In an early test, PSKbase predicted eight candidate gene modifications for yield improvement and five were confirmed to boost yield by an average of 50% versus the control plants. Not only is that improvement exciting but the hit rate (simply picking a modification that works at all) is more than a 50x improvement over the historic, industry success rate of about 1%.

In addition to having a great management team, superstar scientific founders, and more strategic partnerships in place than many Series C funded companies, Benson Hill is a leader in the early wave of biology startups driven by rapidly improving software and experimental tools that we are calling Automated Biology. We are excited about this emerging investment theme at the intersection of cloud computing and new biology tools. Also, because Benson Hill’s platform works across all crops, it has an incredible opportunity to reinvent the business model for next-generation crop development whether the final product is genetically modified in a traditional sense, modified by new tools like CRISPR or a result of directed natural breeding.

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