Addressing the Bottlenecks of Implementing CRISPR in Plant Breeding

Rudi Adrian, CEO and Ferdinand Los, CSO of Hudson River Biotechnology

The ability to change the bases of DNA at precisely predetermined locations holds tremendous value not only for molecular biology but also for medicine and biotechnology. Although there are several discoveries and inventions designed to increase the genome-editing efficacy, most of them are not up to the mark. The difficulties in cloning and protein engineering have prevented these tools from being broadly adopted by the scientific community. That’s where CRISPR technology shines as an indispensable tool in biological research.

"To establish oneself, it is imperative that one must have a word with people and companies in the market to understand the challenges they are facing and see how they can address those challenges"

However, a typical CRISPR breeding project encounters barriers at several steps in the process, including target selection, CRISPR guide design, transfection and plant regeneration. Among many problems, the prevalent one that I noticed was expensive natural ingredients being used in the food and dietary supplements. Around five years back, Ferdinand and I discussed these problems and concluded that genome editing is the solution. Through genome editing, certain elements in the plant such as phosphorus or magnesium can be increased, which in turn can reduce the cost of the natural ingredient extracted from the plant. We were quick to realize that there is a gap in the market, so we established the Hudson River Biotechnology and developed groundbreaking solutions for each of these bottlenecks.

Overcoming the challenges

When we established, the initial focus was only limited to particular elements in crops and plants. However, after talking with potential customers and seed companies, we understood that genome editing could be applied to any plant or any breeding to increase the nutritional value or to reduce the use of pesticides. Since 2015, we have developed new traits and solved technological barriers in gene editing that makes CRISPR more accessible to customers. We put on the cape of a technology provider and developed a platform to fight with the existing bottlenecks in gene editing and CRISPR. 

In our very first project, we were working with crops and plants to develop different traits and make them more sustainable.  But, we faced a few problems such as working with the CRISPR technology itself to getting the project in sync with protocols. The solved the problems, and that’s when the door of opportunity opened for us. We were bombarded with questions as to how we did it! We understood that focus on leveraging the technology is better because that is what the market needed at that point of time.

Our offerings are available for two kinds of customer sectors. On the one hand, there are large companies like VASF and Syngenta, which are equipped with dealing with molecular capabilities but faces issues in areas like transfixion side and genetic target discovery. On the other hand, there are smaller medium-sized companies that do not have sophisticated molecular breeding capabilities. For those companies, we offer an end to end solution from concept to a modified crop ready for the field or greenhouse testing. This includes technical aspects such as target identification, CRISPR guide design and validation, transfection and plant regeneration. Clients come to us with questions such as ‘Can we develop a tomato that tastes better?’, and we fix that from the beginning to the end.

Paving the Way for Innovation Strategy

From a managerial point of view, it is an extremely tough task to set up a company right from the ground. We began with the whole typical entrepreneur process of selling a new idea to the world, attracting funding, and getting people interested in joining the company. We have several attractive funding, such as the EU horizon 2020 program, seed investment rounds, and additional government funding. 

Getting hands-on the lab was a tough part, but we were able to pull off a miracle by shaking hands with universities in Netherland, where we got access to labs and equipment. As we grew, we established our lab with all the necessary materials required. We followed an organic fashion where we understood the demand in the market and looked for a fund to ensure that the requirement is met. Our approach was entirely different from a company that spends a lot; hire a team to build something and then trying to sell it off in the market. We identified the problems, found a solution, and then established our company.

Words of Advice for Future Entrepreneurs

Initially, companies struggle to find their foot in the market. One can be very creative with a pool of ideas, but those ideas must be channeled in the right way. When we began our journey, it took us nearly one and a half years to understand where we fit. Once we found it, we took time to sort the growth of the company and also spared some time to experiment with specific ideas. Yes, indeed, one can hit the wall, but the idea is not to stand blindly. It is to circle back and creatively find something else. To establish oneself, it is imperative that one must have a word with people and companies in the market to understand the challenges they are facing and see how they can address those challenges.

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