Israeli Startup Grows Super Crops

Photographer: Baz Ratner/Corbis
A researcher stands in an experimental rice field belonging to seed technology firm Kaiima Bio-Agritech, near Kfar Tavor in northern Israel Oct.21, 2013.

Doron Gal has an ambitious goal: to help feed the world and to make money in the process.

Located in Moshav Sharona in Israel's Galilee, his startup Kaiima Bio-Agritech's goal is to use genome multiplication to increase yield potential, improve water-use efficiency and fortify plants against harsh environments.

Gal, Kaiima's CEO, described the company's grand vision in an interview recently while strolling through a rice field the company owns. (He said it's the only place in Israel where rice is grown.) Kaiima, which means "sustainability" in Hebrew, is also developing technology to help enhance corn and wheat farming. Current implementations have yielded a 15 to 50 percent increase in production of the crops, Gal said.

"In any of these crops, a yield increase of just 10 percent is revolutionary," he said. "The aim is to boost crop yields, speeding up by thousands of years the way plants naturally multiply their own DNA."

The market for wheat, corn and rice this year is estimated to be valued at $20 billion and account for 75 percent of the world's grain production, according to a company overview. Demand for the crops has increased 90 percent in the last 30 years and continues to rise by an annual average of 1.5 percent.

Companies developing agriculture technology, or agritech, are trying to capitalize on that growth. Monsanto, the world’s largest seed company, agreed to acquire Climate Corp. last month for about $930 million in the hopes of using the San Francisco startup's big-data expertise to improve farming efficiency.

"Agro-biotech and agritech that change crops genetically or otherwise to give better yield, and make crops more resistant to pests, climate and disease will allow more food to be produced at lower cost," said Koby Simana, who runs the IVC Research Center, which monitors Israel's venture capital and technology industries.

But technology can be a sensitive subject when applied to things people put into their bodies. The farm-tech industry could face regulatory restrictions, Simana said. "This kind of technology is only in its early stages and has potential to go a very long way."

Near Kaiima's rice field, a specialized tractor harvests castor plants, which are used as fuel. Gal said his startup has developed "the most productive varieties of castor in the world," one that can be harvested using a combine. The company has discovered that castor, while not good for feeding the world, can actually boost the production of other crops because it can be grown in environments where other plants can't.

"Castor is really good as a rotation crop with a deep and fast-developing root system that brings up nutrients other plants can't access," Gal said. "When we grow corn or wheat after castor, the yield increases substantially."

Kaiima, founded in 2007, has managed to grow an impressive list of investors. Li Ka-shing, Asia's richest man, and the World Bank Group's International Finance Corp. both kicked money into a $65 million financing round announced in September.

The funds will be used for further research, to expand globally and to "position Kaiima to become an outstanding participant in the global fight against hunger" — oh, and eventually, to yield some profits.

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