San Diego Business Journal

Synthetic Genomics’ Spinout to Focus on Boosting Crops

By Kelly Quigley Tuesday, October 25, 2011

San Diego-based Synthetic Genomics Inc. has spun out an agricultural biotechnology company that’s seeking to develop and commercialize natural products, which improve crop production, thus creating more food and fuel for the world’s growing population.

The new company, Agradis Inc., has closed on an initial financing round of $20 million — funds that will be used to establish company infrastructure and ramp up product development.

Privately held Synthetic Genomics formed the company in partnership with Plenus S.A. de C.V., a Mexico-based investment company that was also among the first investors in Synthetic Genomics.

Other “Series A” investors in Agradis, besides Synthetic Genomics and Plenus, are Malaysia-based conglomerate Genting Group and Draper Fisher Jurvetson of Menlo Park.

Agradis will help fulfill the needs of an expanding global population, said J. Craig Venter, co-founder and chairman of Agradis and chairman and CEO of Synthetic Genomics. “Population is a key issue,” Venter said. “In a few days we’ll surpass 7 billion people on this planet, and in 12 years we’ll add another billion people. We have to develop new sustainable approaches in order for our survival to not be at risk.”

Venter said that the new company, which will be located in La Jolla not far from Synthetic Genomics’ headquarters, will initially work on two key areas: producing better crops through advances in genomics, and developing crop-protection and growth products using microorganisms. For example, the company is exploring a method of coating seeds with specially developed microbes that will fend off disease, rather than adding chemical-based fertilizers.

The first two crops that Agradis will concentrate on are castor and sweet sorghum, Venter said. Castor seed oil is used in lubricants, cosmetics and other products. Agradis will seek to develop hybrid castor seeds that boost yields and lower production costs, which could soon make castor an economically viable biofuel feedstock. “There’s not been much work done at all on castor as a plant,” Venter said. “If we just got a two-fold increase (in crop yield) it could have a huge economic impact.”

Agradis, with 15 employees, is led by CEO Alejandro Rodriguez, who has worked at some of the biggest agriculture companies in the United States and Mexico.