Burien startup Phytelligence avoids getting dirty with its tree-growing technology

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Trees generally grow in soil, but a Burien biotech startup thinks they just might grow better in gel. Phytelligence has developed a way for trees, most commonly fruit trees, to grow during their early days in a nutrient-rich gel. It provides a sterile environment to cut down on viruses that might attack the plant and to make sure that all trees of one variety are uniform.Orchards can be a risky business that

Orchards can be a risky business that take a long time to reach fruition — often taking 10 years, said Phytelligence CEO Ken Hunt. Trees grown in soil and sold to farmers can also become damaged during transplanting.Phytelligence’s technology aims to cut down on

Phytelligence’s technology aims to cut down on tree-mortality rates and make it easier for farmers to grow more plants, more quickly in gel with custom nutrients for each plant variety.

The process was first created at Washington State University by associate professor Amit Dhingra and spun out into a company nearly six years ago. Dhingra realized that previous gel-based technologies were based on a recipe for tobacco plants. He set about customizing the tissue culture gels for other types of plants.

The startup recently raised $6.9 million from investors, bringing its total funding to $12.6 million. Its most recent funding round was led by Cowles Co. of Spokane, a family-owned investment group that owns The Spokesman-Review and invests in growing businesses. The Washington Research Foundation also invested in Phytelligence’s round.

Phytelligence, which has 70 employees, now works with about 30 customers and can grow up to 29 million plants every year in its facility in Tigard, Ore. The startup grows the plants for between 12 and 24 months and then sells them to farmers — most commonly as rootstock, or an underground stem.

Phytelligence charges about $1.95 for each rootstock, higher than the going rate of about $1.70, but Hunt said the results pay off in more developed and less diseased trees.

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Seattle Week in Review: MSFT Sales Reorg, UW, Phytelligence, & More

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Agtech startup Phytelligence, a Washington State University spinout using genetic analysis and sterile growing environments to improve the quality and volume of fruit tree rootstocks and provide other services to farmers, has raised $6.95 million in the first closing of a Series B funding round.

Spokane, WA-based Cowles Company led the investment, with participation from WRF Capital. The company says the funding round could grow to $16 million total, later this summer.

The funding will support expanded production, and “research for developing, owning, and commercializing new rootstock and varieties of apples, cherries, pears, and grapes to further meet the needs of growers and consumers,” according to a news release.

The company, founded in 2012 by WSU associate professor of horticulture genomics and biotechnology Amit Dhingra, is headquartered in the Seattle area, where it has an 8-acre greenhouse, with research and development offices in Pullman, WA, and Portland, OR, where it operates a tissue-culture production facility. The company has 70 employees.

Its earlier financial backers include angel investors from Keiretsu Forum Northwestand Element 8, though the majority of the company’s initial funding round came from individual investors from the Northwest tree fruit industry.


Phytelligence Raises $6.95m Towards $16m Series B

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Phytelligence Raises $6.95m Towards $16m Series B

Agricultural biotechnology and micropropagation company Phytelligence has raised $6.95 million of a potential $16 million Series B closing August 4.

This round was led by Cowles Company, a family-owned investor out of Spokane, WA with investments in media, clean tech, and some agriculture, among other areas. Also participating in the round was WRF Capital, the investing arm of the Washington Research Foundation.

“The decision to invest in Phytelligence was an easy one to make once we saw the tremendous gap between the current nursery capabilities and the needs of the modern grower,” said Steve Rector, CFO of Cowles Company.

Phytelligence’s patented and trademarked MULTIPHY process enables apples, cherries, peaches, pears, grapes, hops, berries and nuts to grow five times faster with fewer inputs using a non-soil, nutrient-dense growing medium. This speeds up the process for growers to get new, designer fruit varieties like Honeycrisp apples and cotton candy grapes to market as well as alleviating age-old industry bottlenecks. Growers traditionally had to wait just to be able to obtain rootstock for new crops.

Now, Phytelligence provides genetically-verified and virus-free trees and rootstock to farmers in a sector long-plagued by a lack of transparency. CEO Ken Hunt says that in the past, 10% of apple trees sold were mislabeled as to their type.

Phytelligence technology spun out out of Washington State University as founder and CSO Professor Amit Dhingra was woking with local Washington farmers to develop new apple varieties using micropropagation. He founded Phytelligence when the demand from farmers became too great to meet in an academic setting. Now the company offers tissue culture and genetic testing for trees already in the field, as well as selling rootstock and plants.

Phytelligence will use the new funds to further expand its propagation capacity including taking on more greenhouse space.

“We’re also spending a tremendous amount of time and money to constantly improve the process — looking at robotics; looking at the ability to do grafting in a tissue culture lab with a younger plant to speed the process,” said CEO Ken Hunt, who joined the company in 2016.

In addition to being the only genetically-verified rootstock provider, Phytelligence is also always looking for the next great apple variety, but Hunt says despite Phytelligence’s quick pace for a tree-grower, these things cannot be rushed.

“Nature is only so fast. I feel like we’ve got the tools and the ability to make very good breeding selections that will make the discovery of the next Honeycrisp really fast. You just gotta sit there and wait for the plants to grow.” Even after a winning variety is discovered, much more breeding and cultivation is required to reach critical mass to bring the new variety to market. Hunt says that the fastest possible timeline for a new apple variety is seven to 10 years.

Since founding in 2012, the company has grown to around 70 employees with greenhouse space in Washington and a tissue culture lab in Oregon. Dhingra also still runs an R&D lab at Washington State University and Phytelligence has right of first refusal to any new tech developed there.

Uniquely, much of the company’s previous funding came from the industry including various farming groups along with four leading nurseries.

“When I started the company, I was grateful that the industry was the first to come to the table with financial support,” Dhingra told AgFunderNews in 2016. “Phytelligence came from the industry as growers defined what their problems were and through their support and guidance we were able not only to develop solutions for them but to test them and improve on them. In many ways, this is the true definition of a democratic process: from the industry, by the industry and for the industry!”

Phytelligence has raised $12.6 million total to date.

Agriculture startup raises $7M to grow apples, cherries, and nuts in high-tech gel

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Phytelligence is raising more cash to further develop its technology that helps grow food crops like apples, cherries, hops, and nuts more effectively.

The Seattle startup just closed on $6.95 million of a larger Series B round that could total $16 million. Cowles Company led the investment, which included participation from WRF Capital. Total funding in the 70-person company is $12.6 million.

Founded in 2012 out of Washington State University, Phytelligence has developed proprietary, non-GMO technology to grow crops at a faster clip and with a lower mortality rate. The company has delivered more than one million plants to growers and nurseries around the country.

“The Phytelligence growing process means that plants are healthier, virus-free and genetically confirmed before we ship,” the company notes on its website. “Plants are grown in greenhouses and delivered in Ellie pots meaning the root system is never destroyed, eliminating the risk of transfer shock.”

Phytelligence grows its trees through a proprietary tissue culture process called MultiPHY. The four-step process grows trees in a custom gel blend rather than traditional soil; this method provides all necessary nutrients without the need for water, which saves time and money for growers. The controlled environment also allows the plants to grow more quickly.


Via Phytelligence.


The fresh funding will also go toward research for developing and commercializing new crop varieties of apples, cherries, pears, and grapes.

“This influx of funding gives us the capital needed to continue our rapid expansion to meet the needs of growers domestically and internationally,” Phytelligence CEO Ken Hunt said in a statement. “The success of our company validates the demand for our proprietary technology and the need for a change in the current nursery system. We’re looking forward to expanding our footprint and providing growers with the highest quality, true-to-type plant material and compound solutions for agronomic and consumer benefit.”

Hunt joined the company in late 2015; COO Tyler Spurgeon and CRO Tim O’Brien were also hired to the executive team at the time. Since then, Phytelligence has grown its workforce from 12 to 70 full-timers while opening an 8-acre greenhouse in Burien, Wash., and a tissue culture lab in Portland. It also has a research and development lab in Pullman, Wash. The company was founded in 2012 by Dr. Amit Dhingra, an associate professor of Horticulture Genomics and Biotechnology Research at Washington State University.

“Nurseries Invest in Phytelligence”

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Today, Good Fruit Grower discussed the International New Variety Network (INN) investment in Phytelligence. 


“Four major nurseries that form the North American group of the International New Varieties Network (INN) have made a significant investment in … Phytelligence.


“[North American INN leader Jack] Snyder said the INN members saw value in being able to use genetic analysis to identify plants. First, it could help the nurseries protect their new and patented varieties. Second, it can ensure that nurseries deliver exactly what the growers ordered. Snyder said several cases of mistaken identity involving Geneva rootstocks have underlined the importance of DNA testing before mass production begins. He foresees that the nurseries will have genetic analysis done of mother trees and the second-generation scion blocks.


“The nurseries also are interested in having a tissue culture lab at their disposal to get new varieties out to growers more quickly. Not only is tissue culture faster than traditional propagation in the field, but it also requires fewer resources, such as land and employees, Snyder said.”

Phytelligence Raises Investor Funds

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Production Started


~ We’re very excited to announce the completion of our initial funding round from investors.

The investment round was over-subscribed. Investors include some of the leading individuals and businesses in the Pacific Northwest tree fruit industry as well as individual angel investors from the Puget Sound region and beyond. It was noted that more than 70% of the funds came from commercial growers and nurseries:

Many of our customers recognize the benefits we can provide based on our proprietary technologies and know-how. The broader industry urgently needs what we can now offer, which is why so many of our customers have decided to be our investors as well.

Co-founder and CTO Amit Dhingra, PhD added:

We are pleased to be their partners in progress building a world-class horticulture industry.

Co-founder and Director of Operations Tyson Koepke, PhD highlighted the close working relationship between Phytelligence and its customers and investors:

I’m very grateful to the many growers who have taken the time to share their perspectives, problems, and vision for the future with us over the past five years. It is this collaborative approach that has guided the vision of Phytelligence to reality. I look forward to benefitting the tree fruit industry, helping bring new and important varieties to nurseries and growers more rapidly than previously possible through our tissue culture processes.

Phytelligence and its researchers come out of Washington State University and the company’s products and services are the result of years of innovative, disciplined research. Anson Fatland, executive director of the WSU Research Foundation, noted:

Washington State University has long been a national leader in innovation, and the technologies we have licensed to Phytelligence are an example of that research excellence. As WSU President Elson Floyd has observed, commercializing university research has enormous benefits to the university, its researchers, industry and to society as a whole. We congratulate Phytelligence on their success, and applaud their efforts in bringing innovative solutions to nurseries and growers in the tree fruit industry in Washington and beyond.

Some of the investor funding has been used to complete the outfitting of the company’s lab and production space with equipment and supplies. The funding will also be used to hire staff, pursue additional intellectual property protection and for sales and marketing efforts to reach beyond the company’s existing customer relationships.