Where Ideas Meet Impact: In business to build a better apple

- November 7, 2023

Tommy Davies of Foodimprover.
Tommy Davies of Foodimprover.

The snapshot

Leveraging unique genome mapping research from 人兽性交鈥檚 Faculty of Agriculture, startup Foodimprover is set to transform the global fruit sector鈥檚 ability to rapidly improve the taste, shelf life and resilience of our favourite fruits and berries.

The idea

While gene editing has revolutionized rice, wheat, and corn, Tommy Davies, chief science officer at Foodimprover, says Rosaceous crops, like apples and strawberries, have lagged due to the absence of precise gene editing targets. He says to think of gene-editing methods like CRISPR as a vehicle and the targets as a GPS system.

鈥淯ntil this point, no one's really had the GPS for Rosaceous crops, they can drive the car, but they have no idea where to drive it to,鈥 says Davies. 鈥淔oodimprover aims to bridge that gap by getting good quality, actionable gene editing targets to the industry, particularly for apples, because that's our expertise.鈥

The challenge

Davies is a PhD student in the lab of Dr. Sean Myles, a leading researcher in 人兽性交鈥檚 Faculty of Agriculture who was recently profiled in the for founding Dal鈥檚 Apple Biodiversity Collection in Nova Scotia鈥檚 Annapolis Valley. The orchard laboratory boasts more than 1,000 varieties of the fruit, making it the most diverse apple orchard in the world.

Dr. Myles also has a penchant for entrepreneurship, having launched a new cheese-based venture and founded and sold a successful cider company. Davies says Dr. Myles brings his entrepreneurial mindset into the lab, continually challenging students to look for real-world applications for their research.

鈥淗e pushes us to think beyond the science, to the greater implications of our discoveries and their business and policy implications,鈥 he says. To help channel their creative energies, Dr. Myles set up a whiteboard in his lab and prompted students to pitch their ideas for the most valuable crops to explore.

With ideas buzzing in their heads, the prof and students went for a hike up Nova Scotia鈥檚 Cape Split. While treading the path, they stumbled on a conundrum 鈥 there鈥檚 a lot of gene editing activity, but not a lot of success. Why?

Davies says they quickly arrived at a realization 鈥 they simply don鈥檛 know where to edit.

The solution

鈥淲e thought, wow, it's so crazy that these groups are still pouring all this money into gene editing when they have no targets,鈥 says Davies. 鈥淕iven our expertise and our resources, we figured we could devise a way to create a genetic map that's valuable for industry.鈥

And the market for fruit cartography is vast. The players range from massive conglomerates to a fast-growing crop of new agri-tech ventures all aiming to enhance products in the produce aisle, says Davies. Discoveries that make fruit taste better, last longer or resist pests have the potential to be extremely valuable.

鈥淭he market is big for these things,鈥 he says. 鈥淭here's about a billion Rosaceous plants planted every year. And so, if you're collecting a royalty on just a fraction of them, there is a huge prospect for revenue.鈥

Seeing the opportunity, Dr. Myles and Davies formulated Foodimprover, with Dr. Myles taking the role of CEO and Davies CSO. Then the pair turned to Dal鈥檚 Office of Commercialization and Industry Engagement to navigate how to launch a business leveraging research developed at the university.

鈥淥CIE was a great early resource in helping to set our trajectory. They had plenty of wisdom and examples to share that helped us position ourselves early on,鈥 says Davies. 鈥淎s a university-based startup, it is crucial to ensure that you have freedom to operate, and OCIE was very helpful in getting us to a place where we understood what that meant and how we could get there.鈥澛

The pair also took Dal鈥檚 12-week immersive program where Davies says they put in the hard work to validate their business idea.

鈥淭hey emphasize the importance of doing the thing that no one wants to do 鈥 cold calling industry contacts,鈥 he says. But it paid off. 鈥淭hose conversations are where we formulated our market intelligence and our understanding of where we could potentially capture value.鈥

The Impact

Davies says Foodimprover is on the cusp of a proof of concept 鈥 a new strawberry 鈥 that will assure potential clients that they have the mapping expertise to meet their gene editing needs.

鈥淲e've had interest from big, medium and small companies,鈥 says Davies, who was working out of biotech accelerator in North Carolina with the support of a potential partner at the time of the interview.

Beyond the promise of breaking into a multibillion-dollar industry, Davies says Foodimprover could make significant contributions to strengthening global food security. He says that dramatic shifts in agricultural environments and new pests resulting from climate change will increase the need for rapid development and adaptation of new crops.

鈥淎pples are the second most valuable crop in Canada, they're one of the most produced fruits on the globe, and they store really well. So, they're huge for human nutrition and year-round health,鈥 he says. 鈥淪o, when something bad comes up, we need the tools to address it, not on the current scale of 30 years, but perhaps on the scale of four, five or six.鈥


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