Fred Van Ex, Senior Director R&D at Inari and Managing Director of Inari Belgium (courtesy of Inari)
Inari Agriculture has been awarded the 2020 Newcomer of the Year Trophy by Flanders Investment & Trade (FIT). Inari (US) opened its first foreign R&D branch in Ghent’s biotech valley just over a year ago. Since then, the Belgian team has been hard at work developing plants that can address both growing global food requirements and climate change. They’re approaching the challenge with both the latest genetic techniques and with a fresh perspective on how a business should be run.
Inari likes to do things differently. This young company has been turning heads both with their technology and their company culture. In 2019, Inari was named a Technology Pioneer by the World Economic Forum. This year, they’ve been awarded the Newcomer of the Year Trophy at FIT’s Foreign Investment event. Inari is indeed a ‘new’ type of company: one which focuses on corporate responsibility and improving the world as well as profits. Inari’s CEO, Ponsi Trivisvavet, is fiercely supportive of Inari’s ethics:
“We are very proud of what we do, because we are really working with a purpose. We want to create seeds that can help the changing planet. We strive to bring down the resources that go into agriculture and overcome the challenges associated with climate change.
The way we go about this is we embrace a combination of genomic and data science technologies. By being creative and bringing these two disciplines together, we’re addressing one of the most pressing problems of our age: how to create a sustainable global food system. We’re a newcomer not just because we were newly founded but also because we are challenging the status quo and are boldly outspoken about what needs to be changed in the industry.”
This fresh approach is also well reflected in Inari’s leadership. With a female CEO and a diverse management team, the people who make up the company also set it apart from your average startup. This culture of social responsibility even spans generations: Julie Borlaug, Inari’s VP of Communications & PR, is the granddaughter of Norman Borlaug, the Nobel Peace Prize winner widely considered the father of the Green Revolution. Like Norman Borlaug, Inari is striving to improve the global food system in order to improve conditions for all the world’s citizens.
Improved acceptance for gene edited crops
Inari’s technology is based on a combination of genetic techniques and data sciences. The company is using this technology to tap into natural genetic diversity of plants and create seeds that require less agricultural input, such as nitrogen fertilizer or water, and are more productive and profitable for farmers. The focus, for now, is on classic row crops such as maize and soybean, but the team hopes to improve a wide range of plants, including heirloom varieties and even crops suitable for vertical farming.
We are very proud of what we do, because we are really working with a purpose. We want to create seeds that can help the changing planet. - Ponsi Trivisvavet, Inari
A lot of Inari’s cutting-edge research is being conducted at the Ghent site, supported by technology developed across the other Inari sites. Fred Van Ex, the Managing Director of Inari’s Belgian branch, told us that Inari is hoping to impact regulations and general acceptance for these new beneficial technologies.
Pushing the envelope in editing
Developing sustainable crops that require less and produce more sounds fantastic, but just how are they achieving this? Van Ex says the key is to figure out how to edit using cutting-edge genetic techniques, based on CRISPR but also which genes to edit. There have been two main foci at the Ghent site: genetic and epigenetic engineering. Using the former, the team has been making breakthroughs with multiplexing edits in maize. Van Ex explained:
“We’ve been working on developing maize that requires less water and fertilizer while still providing the same yield. These are complex traits, with a lot of genes underlying the different pathways involved. This means that a lot of genes need to be modified, which in turn means that you need a technology that allows you to “multiplex”: to be able to modify all those genes at the same time. If you were to do it sequentially, it would just take too much time. If you would do it through breeding, it would take forever.
Developing this multiplex technology has been a big focus for the Ghent site. The first stage has been successful so far: in one year, we have actually been able to combine many different types of edits using multiplexing. This year, we will start looking at specific phenotypes of the resulting plants: how they behave under normal conditions, under stress conditions, etc.”
We’re a newcomer not just because we were newly founded but also because we are challenging the status quo and are boldly outspoken about what needs to be changed in the industry. - Ponsi Trivisvavet, Inari
Multiplexing is already a cutting-edge technology, but the Belgian division of Inari has also been working on an even more experimental technique: epigenome editing. The epigenome essentially regulates an organism’s genome by switching genes on or off. However, unlike the genome, the epigenome is malleable and can change through an organism’s lifetime in response to things like environmental stress. Key to this new technique is that certain epigenetic changes are heritable, and therefore present a promising new avenue for phenotypic modification. Van Ex elaborated:
“Modifying the epigenome is a very interesting project, because it’s very high-risk: when we started this, we didn’t know how stable these modifications were, how easy they were to switch on or off, etc. We have an exclusive license for the technology from UCLA, which has formed the basis of the project. This is the first time the technology has been tested in maize, and we already have some promising results.
The important thing about epigenetic engineering is that it can be used to upregulate genes. So far, most CRISPR-based technologies are really good at making knockouts and lowering gene expression, but increasing it is very hard. Epigenetic engineering may be able to provide a solution to this problem.”
All up, it has been an extraordinarily big year for the company with a lot of positive news. Inari is pushing the boundaries not just for agriculture, but also for how a company should operate. This is definitely a newcomer to keep an eye on!