Published Jul 16, 2022
The first ten years from first discovery of a new promising technology are often more about hype than delivery. So it has been for genome editing. Should we be surprised? No. But I’d be surprised and very disappointed if the next ten years ends with the same outcome.
Let’s put this in the context of the adoption process for other technologies, both from within and outside agriculture. Hybrid maize in the 1930s was rapidly adopted based on evident and transformational yield benefits, and the increased pace of yield improvement. This came from an emerging seed company founded on the concept just years before, Pioneer Hi-Bred. Biotech for GMO’s was rapidly adopted in the 1990’s / 2000’s when two transformational applications – weed control and insect control – were identified. This was led by an ag major, Monsanto, as the value proposition was immediately compelling at scale. Emerging and established companies battled for premier position in the emerging home computer market, with both Apple and IBM finding success as entrant and industry incumbent.
So, who will lead towards the transformational opportunities enabled by deploying genome editing for the benefit of farmers and consumers around the world? After the first decade of GMO development, Monsanto was just 2 years away from launching the RoundUp Ready trait. However, there doesn’t appear to be a major player today poised to launch a “killer app” through genome editing. One challenge is that with regulatory uncertainties remaining in key markets like the EU, large global companies find it challenging to identify valuable enough opportunities in local markets where global regulatory constraints are not an impediment. But to smaller companies, this can be an opportunity with large growth ahead through later market expansion.
So, the most visible efforts today are from smaller companies taking novel approaches in potentially lesser value markets – a classic disruption strategy ala Clayton Christensen. Over time these companies will move into larger markets as the value of the technology is demonstrated. This is possible through the ability of small companies to take market risks large companies often avoid.
Sanatech has already launched a heart-healthy tomato in Japan – The Sicilian Rouge High GABA tomato. Pairwise is taking strides in berries and leafy greens – launching a new brand of Conscious Greens that could appear in the market in 2023. Note that both Sanatech and Pairwise have adopted disruptive business models for their new products. Other small companies are tackling unmet market needs through genome editing, such as Napigen and Tropic Biosciences. Inari is working on large acreage crops with an eye on sustainability and climate. And Meiogenix is using chromosome editing, closely related technologically for similar outcomes.
In short, we can expect the next 10 years to be rich with diverse solutions for urgent ag and food problems enabled by genome editing, coming primarily from small companies. As with other sectors, history tells us this will compel larger companies later in the cycle either to invest heavily internally to catch up and compete – leveraging their market, brand, and distribution assets – or to acquire successful startup companies with competitive business models that can scale.