Episode 7: PowerPollen Creates 'Impossible' Improvements to Seed Corn Yields, Raises $10M
As any Iowan will tell you, detasseling corn on a hot summer’s day as a teenager is almost a rite of passage. A Greater Des Moines (DSM) startup says they’ve developed a process to cross-pollinate corn that not only eliminates the need for that manual labor but also can increase yields by up to 80 percent.
Defying the impossible
PowerPollen Founders Todd Krone and Jason Cope say the process they developed was thought to be impossible.
“The way cross pollination works today is for the most part a reliance on the elements — you plant things in proximity and you hope they cross-pollinate,” Krone told Startup Stories DSM podcast host Mike Colwell. “We’re introducing a new way to enable the desired cross-pollination to occur rather than to just rely on the wind.”
Corn plants have both female and male parts. If you want the stalk to be female you have to detassel it. Cross pollination leads to higher productivity. Currently, that process is labor intensive and weather dependent.
Krone and Cope, who had worked together on and off for 20 years in various roles at Monsanto and DuPont Pioneer, both left their positions independently and coincidentally. They began by brainstorming what each of them was going to do professionally next. After they talked, they realized they both had ideas to better seed corn production, which became their focal point. They narrowed in on pollen as the potential place to look.
The concept Krone and Cope landed upon was thought to be impossible prior.
Seeing is believing
Pollen preservation is a very difficult process to achieve. Scientific literature had shown it was possible on a small scale using complex machinery but wasn’t amenable to scaling at production level, which was the missing link.
They hired a retired scientist to look at the scientific literature. After a thorough literature review, they began to hypothesize how they could enable the preservation of pollen. They saw potential in some of those ideas, ones that others had previously overlooked, and ran with it.
“People to this day that we work with have to see it to believe it,” Cope said.
In the spring of 2015, they set up shop in Krone’s garage and the field became their workshop. By fall, they moved into a new space that resembled a lab and filled it with used furniture.
Solving seed yield
Krone and Cope said that on average, 30 percent of potential pollination doesn’t occur due to reliance on the elements. PowerPollen enables that last 30 percent to occur and increase yields. It also reduces labor costs to detassel and better prevents cross-contamination. A further efficiency comes from decreasing the number of male crop, which takes 20 – 35 percent of the field and is used to produce pollen but doesn’t produce product.
The process can also make hybrids between two parents that weren’t crossable prior. Two parents that flowered three weeks apart prior can now be pollinated together.
With the adaption of existing technology, the goal is to fully automate the hybridization of crops.
Huge gains in yield
They have seen impressive yield increases, reduced cross-contamination and an increase in consistency. In the summer of 2017, their test fields saw an increase in yield of up to 80 percent.
“That sounds crazy, but we were in fields that on average had some problems,” Krone said.
They have the backing of seed companies who could potentially see higher margins by decreasing their manufacturing costs.
PowerPollen has so far raised $10 million.
After being bootstrapped for the first year, they’ve successfully gone through three rounds of fundraising. The seed round got them through the second 12 months. A Series A brought them through field trials and development to date and with the Series B, which just closed, they plan to continue operations through the next 18 – 24 months.
Krone and Cope say they predict to be cashflow positive in 2019. And for good reason. Once they master corn seed production, they say the technology can be applied to rice, wheat, vegetable and fruit trees and elevate the burden on bees to pollinate. So far, they have nine patents pending.
With a million corn seed acres in the U.S., PowerPollen is a DSM success story in the making.
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