You've probably never heard of covercress, but the engineered crop may help change the face of farming.
The St. Louis-based CoverCress, formerly Arvegenix, has genetically improved a plant once considered to be a weed--spindly, flat-seeded pennycress--to create a new variety called covercress. The name comes from the new plant's biggest advantage: It grows in winter, so it can serve as a cover crop between established growing seasons.
"Today land is left bare half the year--that's not normally what happens in nature. Cover crops prevent erosion, hang on to nutrients in the soil, and pull carbon into the soil between regular growing seasons," says CEO Jerry Steiner. "What's different about our cover crop is that it produces an oil seed, which is an additional source of revenue."
With 12 employees, CoverCress is one of a handful of St. Louis-based agtech businesses looking to improve the efficiency of farming in the face of looming crises. Between the ill effects of climate change and consequences wrought by single-source food production, the nation's farming industry may need to reinvent itself to survive--as investors have been quick to note, pouring $10.1 billion into agtech startups in 2017, according to a report from venture capital platform AgFunder.
"In the economics of today, cover crops are a net expense," says Steiner. "We're hoping to deliver cover crop benefits while at the same time producing income." In a 2018 survey the company conducted, 80 percent of growers said they wanted to try the new crop.
Indeed, cover crops can be an important part of a grower's arsenal, suggests Jak Knowles, who heads up venture investments at Bayer. "We view cover crops as a key tool for farmers. They help improve rainfall capture and enrich soils in a sustainable way," he says. "We think planting cover crops is a carbon-smart practice that needs to be increased in modern agricultural systems."
In November, his company, the global healthcare and agriculture giant, co-led a $2 million investment in CoverCress along with St. Louis evergreen investor BioGenerator. It was the latest in three capital rounds for the company, totaling $6.9 million.
Perfecting the Pitch
Among farmers, though, cover crops can be a tough sell. Many disagree about whether they're worth the additional investment of time and resources.
"Most cover crops don't have a yield component, so you're asking the farmer to take an extra action that they normally wouldn't," Knowles says. "After they've finished harvesting, they have to go out and plant again, and the only benefit they get is that hopefully they'll have better topsoil conditions and use less fertilizer next year."
But CoverCress' new variety promises profit as well as protection, yielding both animal feed and food-grade oil. Covercress has less fiber than pennycress, so it can be ground into meal suitable for feed, and its oil is more useful too.
"There was one component of pennycress oil that wouldn't allow it to be food-grade--that is, the presence of erucic acid, which is not regulated by the [Food and Drug Administration]," says Cristine Handel, vice president of strategy and operations. "We [found] a natural mutant that does not produce this, so the oil became food-grade. Now, in addition to all the market potential of biofuels, we have the potential [to be used] in the food industry."
Taking a Shortcut
Handel is quick to note the importance of basing CoverCress's operations in St. Louis' 39 North agricultural technology and science district, which offers a community of research institutions and accelerators including the globally renowned Yield Lab, a CoverCress backer. CoverCress was founded in late 2013 by Dennis Plummer, Mike Roth, and Vijay Chauhan. Steiner, a fellow Monsanto alumnus, took over as CEO in 2015.
"The environment in St. Louis was absolutely critical for us to develop this research," Handel adds. "People are more used to 'ag' investments. Usually you take decades to develop a new crop. We were able to do it much faster."
Of course, the real hurdle is getting farmers to buy in to the CoverCress mission. So far, the company has yet to earn a penny of revenue, but Steiner is confident.
"When we go out and talk to farmers, they're very interested," he says. "But they want to be very sure we deliver on our product concept: That the yield is there."