Newspaper article St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO)

Young Biotech Firm Arvegenix Chases the Next Cash Crop

Newspaper article St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO)

Young Biotech Firm Arvegenix Chases the Next Cash Crop

Article excerpt

CREVE COEUR * A local biotech startup is trying to accomplish something that hasn't been done since the middle of the last century. Researchers are trying to turn what currently amounts to a weed in this case, pennycress into a viable commodity crop for farmers. And they hope to do it before the end of this decade.

"It's been a long time since a wild strain was domesticated," said Dennis Plummer, one of the founders of Arvegenix. "Even for some of the recent domestications, it took decades."

Indeed, the last plant to make a similar jump was the soybean, which originated several thousand years ago in China. Outside of China, the plant spent the vast majority of its life as little more than a novelty. It wasn't until the 1920s that it began its ascent to its current position as one of the world's largest grain crops. And even then, it didn't become a staple of U.S. farms until the 1950s.

It would be asking a lot to expect pennycress to enjoy the same level of success. Still, this member of the mustard seed family does have a lot working in its favor.

The plant's seeds have the potential to be solid oil producers, while leftover meal can be used to make livestock feed. But its strongest trait may be the fact that it grows in the winter, when most Midwestern fields are empty.

Arvegenix envisions a crop rotation where pennycress fits in between a typical corn/soybean rotation, giving farmers an extra growing season.

"If we can fit into that window when nothing else is growing, that's the definition of sustainability," said Jerry Steiner, the new chief executive of the two-year-old biotech startup, which has 11 employees, with more than half working for equity in the company in lieu of salaries.

The sustainability feature is one of things that helped the company in snagging a $100,000 investment by Yield Lab, an accelerator for agribusinesses. Yield Lab, founded last year, recently named Arvegenix among the five companies in its initial investment program, which includes mentoring and a business development program.

"There aren't many crops that can grow in the winter," said Matt Plummer, Yield Lab program manager and son of the Arvegenix founder. …

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