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Phytelligence Named A Seattle Business Magazine Tech Impact Award Finalist

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Phytelligence, an agricultural biotechnology company revolutionizing the way food crops, was recently named a finalist for the Seattle Business Magazine 2017 Tech Impact Awards in the Emerging Technology category.

Phytelligence was chosen out of a field of over 100 Pacific Northwest companies vying for the honor, which will be presented in real-time at the September 26th awards banquet held at the Museum of Pop Culture in Seattle.

The Tech Impact Awards recognize companies headquartered in Washington State that are using technology to have a significant impact on business, industry or society. Companies will be honored in 14 categories: Enterprise, Cloud/Big Data, IT Services/Consulting, Emerging Tech, Design/Interface, Mobile, Education, Consumer/Retail, Gaming/Entertainment, Security, Marketing/Analytics, Software as a Service, and Other.

Companies honored at this year’s 2017 Tech Impact Awards will include:

Algorithmia
Blue Origin
Echodyne
F5 Networks
FLEXE
Kymeta Corporation
Medbridge
Nintex
Offer Up
Outreach
Phytelligence
Qumulo
Spaceflight Industries
Tempered Networks
Textio
VICIS
Xevo
Zonar Systems

All entries were considered by the 3rd-party judging panel resulting in 18 category finalists that will be honored at the awards banquet and featured in the October issue of Seattle Business magazine.

About Phytelligence

Phytelligence is an agricultural biotechnology company that is revolutionizing food crops. Utilizing its proprietary growing techniques to provide superior quality crops, Phytelligence enables higher grower profit by increasing speed to harvest while reducing input costs. Phytelligence provides additional value to food crop growers and plant breeders through the application of advanced genetics enabling delivery of accurate plants, disease screening, plant repository services, securing of intellectual property, and the ability to co-develop new varieties of food crops. In addition, Phytelligence has a growing pipeline of biological and compound solutions aimed at improving returns throughout the food crop value chain.

Phytelligence was founded in 2012 by Dr. Amit Dhingra, Associate Professor of Horticulture Genomics and Biotechnology Research laboratory at Washington State University.  Phytelligence is headquartered in Seattle with locations in Pullman, Washington and Portland, Oregon. In 2016, Phytelligence expanded their footprint to include an 8-acre Seattle-based greenhouse space and a Portland-based tissue culture production facility. Currently, Phytelligence has 70 employees and continues to grow.

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.

Phytelligence Secures $6.95M in New Funding, Opens Door For Total Series B Of $16M by August 2017

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FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE

PHYTELLIGENCE SECURES $6.95M IN NEW FUNDING, OPENS DOOR FOR TOTAL SERIES B ROUND OF $16M BY AUGUST 2017

Round Led by Cowles Company Based in Spokane, Washington

SEATTLE, Wash. – July 5, 2017 Phytelligence, an agricultural biotechnology company revolutionizing the way food crops are grown, today announced the first closing of $6.95 million dollars of a total potential $16 million dollar Series B funding round. The first closing was led by Cowles Company, based in Spokane, Washington and followed by further investment from WRF Capital.

The initial $6.95 million will provide funding for expanded plant production that utilizes the proprietary Phytelligence MultiPHY™ technology, while also funding 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. The company has experienced exponential growth since the new management team came together in late 2015, increasing employee count from 12 to 70 full-time employees, as well as securing greenhouse space in Burien, Washington and establishing a fully-functioning tissue culture lab based in Portland, Oregon. The company also maintains its own research and development lab in Pullman, Washington where it discovers grower-focused technologies while also having the right of first refusal for technologies developed in the Dhingra Lab at Washington State University.

“The growth and milestone achievements of Phytelligence over the past few years have been exciting,” said Phytelligence CEO, Ken Hunt. “This influx of funding gives us the capital needed to continue our rapid expansion to meet the needs of growers domestically and internationally. 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.”

“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,” stated Steve Rector, CFO of Cowles Company. “The current system of providing plants to growers is antiquated and simply can’t keep up with the changing customer preferences the growers are trying to satisfy. Phytelligence has the technology, the capacity and the expertise needed to completely revolutionize the food crop industry. We look forward to being a part of that mission.”

The initial funding close of $6.95 million signals the availability of an additional $9 million in funding to be secured by August 4, 2017. The total round maximum of $16 million would signify the largest round for the company, who raised a smaller Series A in 2015.

 

About Phytelligence

Phytelligence is an agricultural biotechnology company that is revolutionizing food crops. Utilizing its proprietary growing techniques to provide superior quality crops, Phytelligence enables higher grower profit by increasing speed to harvest while reducing input costs. Phytelligence provides additional value to food crop growers and plant breeders through the application of advanced genetics enabling delivery of accurate plants, disease screening, plant repository services, securing of intellectual property, and the ability to co-develop new varieties of food crops. In addition, Phytelligence has a growing pipeline of biological and compound solutions aimed at improving returns throughout the food crop value chain.

Phytelligence was founded in 2012 by Dr. Amit Dhingra, Associate Professor of Horticulture Genomics and Biotechnology Research laboratory at Washington State University.  Phytelligence is headquartered in Seattle with locations in Pullman, Washington and Portland, Oregon. In 2016, Phytelligence expanded their footprint to include an 8-acre Seattle-based greenhouse space and a Portland-based tissue culture production facility. Currently, Phytelligence has 70 employees and continues to grow.

About Cowles Company

Cowles Company is a fourth generation family-owned enterprise that operates a portfolio of legacy companies and seeks to invest in high potential growth businesses for the long-term benefit of shareholders, customers, employees and the communities in which it operates.

For more information: www.cowlescompany.com

About WRF Capital

WRF Capital is the Washington Research Foundation’s (WRF) venture investment arm. It has invested in more than 70 local life sciences, physical sciences and information sciences startups since 1995 and proceeds support WRF’s grant programs. The Foundation is recognized as one of the foremost technology transfer and grant-making organizations in the nation and has returned more than $500 million to the state’s research institutions through gifts and licensing disbursements.

For additional information, please visit: http://wrfcapital.com

 

###

 

Contact:

Ashley Mann

Director of Marketing and PR for Phytelligence

ashleymann@phytelligence.com

(206) 300-9891

Phytelligence Inks Strategic Partnership With The Association For The Development Of Hop Agronomy

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BURIEN, Wash. – May 25, 2017 – PRLog — Phytelligence, an agricultural biotechnology company revolutionizing the way food crops are grown, today announced a strategic partnership with the Association for the Development of Hop Agronomy (ADHA). The partnership allows the ADHA to utilize Phytelligence’s repository program to protect newly-developed hop varieties in a sterile and safe environment.  Phytelligence’s proprietary micropropagation technology, MultiPHY™ will be leveraged in the relationship to rapidly propagate large quantities of confirmed true to type, virus free hop plants.

The Association for the Development of Hop Agronomy is comprised of hop growers in Washington, Oregon, and Idaho who are dedicated to reinventing hop-growing practices with a goal of developing varieties and management practices that are durable, broadly adapted, and sustainable. ADHA invests in research and development of new hop production techniques and varieties that can be used in both standard and low trellis production, much like fruit trees or grapes currently. Phytelligence will assist the ADHA in their mission to promote true to type high-quality hop varieties by utilizing their virus screening, repository, and rapid propagation capabilities. The Phytelligence MultiPHY™ process also aids the ADHA in achieving their goal of environmental sustainability by reducing the amount of water used in the growth-to-delivery process.

“The ability to provide high-quality disease free planting material to our growers is of utmost importance to us and in line with our mission. We want brewers who purchase these hops to know that they were developed and grown for them with the highest possible standards. Phytelligence has the knowledge and technology we need to further our goal of improving the hop industry in the Pacific Northwest,” said Megan Twomey, brand manager and agronomist for the Association for the Development of Hop Agronomy. “Their repository program is especially appealing because they have the ability to virus screen our plant material and then keep it in a certifiably safe, sterile environment ready for propagation at a moment’s notice. This gives us the ability to make ADHA plant material available to growers quickly while adhering to our product traceability objectives. We’re looking forward to a successful relationship.”

“The ADHA is an extremely progressive organization,” said Phytelligence CEO, Ken Hunt. “They’re looking to make a big impact in the hop industry by changing the way hops are currently grown to better suit the environment and be more effective for growers. Their progressive nature combined with our technical knowledge, repository program, virus screening capabilities and MultiPHY™ process will create tremendous value for hop growers in our industry.”

Key components of the partnership include:

–  Safekeeping of dwarf varieties with the Phytelligence repository program

–  Virus screening of plant material to ensure strong, healthy plants

–  Rapid propagation of chosen dwarf hop vines using the Phytelligence MultiPHY™ process

About the Association for the Development of Hop Agronomy

The Association for the Development of Hop Agronomy is a group dedicated to reinventing growing practices to adapt to the world in which we live. Greater awareness of our constantly changing environment and our impact upon it necessitates more responsible stewardship of our land. We believe the legacy left behind when we are done farming should not be negative. The ADHA is dedicated to making a difference. We are working to find solutions to the challenges presented to farmers by the global nature of our world in the 21st century.

About Phytelligence

Phytelligence (http://www.phytelligence.com) is an agricultural biotechnology company that is revolutionizing food crops. Utilizing its proprietary growing techniques to provide superior quality crops, Phytelligence enables higher grower profit by increasing speed to harvest while reducing input costs. Phytelligence provides additional value to food crop growers and plant breeders through the application of advanced genetics enabling delivery of accurate plants, disease screening, plant repository services, securing of intellectual property, and the ability to co-develop new varieties of food crops. In addition, Phytelligence has a growing pipeline of biological and compound solutions aimed at improving returns throughout the food crop value chain.

Phytelligence was founded in 2012 by Dr. Amit Dhingra, Associate Professor of Horticulture Genomics and Biotechnology Research laboratory at Washington State University.    Phytelligence is headquartered in Seattle with locations in Pullman, Washington and Portland, Oregon.  In 2016, Phytelligence expanded their footprint to include an 8-acre Seattle-based greenhouse space and a Portland-based tissue culture production facility. Currently, Phytelligence has 67 employees and continues to grow.

Phytelligence MultiPHY™ Technology Set To Rapidly Expand EverCrisp™ Availability For Growers

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SEATTLE – May 9, 2017 – PRLog — Phytelligence (http://www.phytelligence.com), an agricultural biotechnology company revolutionizing the way food crops are grown, today announced their partnership with the Midwest Apple Improvement Association (MAIA) – the entity responsible for managing and marketing the MAIA 1 variety, which produces a unique apple branded the EverCrisp™. The partnership allows Phytelligence to propagate and sell MAIA 1 trees, quickly increasing the amount of the highly desired EverCrisp™ apple in the market and getting more plant material into the hands of awaiting growers. With Phytelligence’s proprietary MultiPHY™ technology, the company can quickly replenish the depleted MAIA 1 supply with virus clean, true-to-type plants ready for delivery in Spring of 2019.

By partnering with Phytelligence, the Midwest Apple Improvement Association is able to quickly fill grower demand by utilizing the 10-40x multiplication rates made possible with the Phytelligence MultiPHY™ technology. The MultiPHY™ process gives growers, universities, grower associations and breeders the ability to rapidly gain access to the latest varieties, solving the variety shortage while also enabling them to generate a greater profit by quickly filling all grower requests while the demand is high.

“We are thrilled that Phytelligence is helping meet unmet demand for the MAIA 1 trees,” said Bill Dodd, President of the Midwest Apple Improvement Association. “With the technology available today, growers should receive the immediate benefit of new varieties. There is no reason for new varieties to be rationed due to legacy growing processes. To help growers remain competitive with the latest varieties we need to utilize every technical advantage to bring new and improved apples to consumers. Phytelligence is at the forefront of the latest agricultural technology and we’re proud to partner with them.”

“We’re at the very beginning stages of seeing widespread, rapid propagation of licensed and club varieties with our MultiPHY™ technology,” said Phytelligence CEO, Ken Hunt. “We’re solving a very real need to quickly supply growers with these high-demand varieties and only Phytelligence can produce the high volumes needed to meet the increasing demand. With Phytelligence, there are no more industry “mix-ups” and our mortality rate is the lowest in the market. Our growers get vigorous, true-to-type plants with full root systems that grow aggressively when planted.”

Most desirable EverCrisp™ apple characteristics include:
–       Sweet flavor
–       Texture and mouth feel similar to Honeycrisp
–       Resembled Fuji in shape and coloring
–       Better storability
–       Greater apple density

The trademarked MAIA 1 variety is praised for its hardiness when grown in a diverse group of locations across the United State and in Europe, and the resulting apple has drawn Honeycrisp taste comparisons with its robust flavor profile. The variety is a cross between the Fuji and the Honeycrisp; melding the sweet, crisp texture of the Honeycrisp with the storability and outward appearance of a Fuji.

Growers interested in sourcing MAIA 1 trees from Phytelligence should contact Paul Nelson at (509) 860-2400 or paulnelson@phytelligence.com.

Faster Drop for New Crop

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Water and time are money if you’re a farmer. Trees are especially slow, and to get a new apple variety growing at a commercial scale can take years. It not only takes a couple of years after planting for fruit production to start, but it’s a long time just getting trees to plant.

The number of trees needed to plant a commercial-scale orchard is daunting. Even a small orchard of 100 acres needs nearly a quarter million trees to get going. And while it might take only a couple years to “raise a few rootstocks, thousands can take many years,” Washington State University apple breeder Kate Evans says.

If you placed an order for trees today—forking over about 25 percent of the total cost as a deposit—you might get your trees in three years. But more likely it’ll be five years. In the meantime, you’re not growing anything and you’re not making any money.

A startup called Phytelligence is disrupting that status quo. Founded in 2012 by Amit Dhingra, an associate professor of horticulture at WSU, and a group of his graduate students, the company is working with an innovative technology that means they can deliver millions of trees in a year to 18 months. Couple that with an extraordinary savings in water, a guarantee of the tree being true to type, and the company is poised to be, well, the next Apple of apples…and almonds, grapes, cherries, pears, and much more.

The innovation, at first glance, sounds old hat: Phytelligence is basically growing trees in gelatin in Mason jars. Called tissue culture, it’s a technique that has been a lab standard for a century. But most commercial nurseries that employ tissue culture are using an old one-size-fits-all recipe that was developed to grow one of the lab rats of plant science, tobacco.

It turns out that by customizing the growth medium—the gelatin at the bottom of the Mason jar—and controlling a few other variables in ways apples or other crops find conducive to growth, things speed up. A lot.

A commercial apple tree is almost always a combination of two different kinds of apple. The fruit-bearing part is called the scion. The scion is grafted to a rootstock. Kevin Hauser of Kuffel Creek Nursery in Riverside, California, says, “It’s like joining the brains of a scientist to the legs of an athlete.” Rootstocks do a lot for the fruit tree, including conferring disease resistance, drought tolerance and, critically, they don’t grow very tall. A short tree is a tree that doesn’t demand as many inputs—water, nutrients, chemicals. In other words, it’s a tree that saves growers money.

With conventional production of rootstock, there’s several years’ worth of consumables before the tree gets to the orchard. A young tree is pushed over onto its side so that its branches dive into the soil, forming new roots. The next spring, the whole mass is dug up and separated into individual trees. Over a period of years, this process is repeated many times until the desired number of rootstocks is available. Scions are produced in similar fashion.

Phytelligence saves 50 to 100 gallons of water for every tree they produce, says Tyson Koepke ’12 PhD. One of the company’s founders, Koepke runs Phytelligence’s Pullman operation.

Phytelligence also uses its genomics expertise to guarantee its rootstocks are true to type. Dhingra’s lab was one of the core members of an international team that sequenced the apple genome. They’ve since sequenced the genomes of many other crops. They use this genetic know-how to ensure that they’re delivering what the customer ordered.

If you order dwarfing rootstock, but then discover that you actually got semi-dwarfing trees, you have a major problem. As Koepke says, “Farmers can’t afford to replant because of errors like that.”

So great has the demand been that Phytelligence has expanded well beyond its original Pullman operation. They’ve leased a 200,000-square-foot greenhouse facility in Burien, near Seattle, that has a six- to eight-million-plant capacity.

The family that owned and operated Bel-R Nurseries in Burien were, after three generations, looking to retire. Mike Rastelli ’83 and his wife, Jodee ’83, met Dhingra and decided that Phytelligence would be a good fit for the facility. “It turned out to be two Cougar families melding together,” Rastelli says.

“These greenhouses were built with love,” Dhingra says. Rastelli’s grandfather and father built the greenhouses over a period of years, expanding capacity as the ornamental plant market rapidly expanded after World War II.

The company also leased a vast tissue culture facility just outside Portland. The original setup in Pullman now serves as a germplasm repository and research lab.

Phytelligence’s move into the new digs was well timed. They’ve already sold out their spring 2017 plant production as demand continues to grow. With the expansion of Phytelligence’s leadership team to include Tim Zenk ’84 as vice president of new business, horizons are expanding, too.

Focused on the world’s other two major fruit producers, Zenk says, “China and India have antiquated systems, old trees, and national goals to increase fruit production. The only way to do that is plant new trees.”

The Push to Make Pears the New Apples

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The_Atlantic_magazine_logo.svgAMSTETTEN, AUSTRIA - MAY 02: Giant must pears (symbol for the Lower Austrian called so called "Must District") is seen at the radial highway to Amstetten , the town, where a father imprisoned his daughter for 24 years and had seven children with her, on May 2, 2008 in Amstetten, Austria. According to police Josef F. kept his daughter Elizabeth, now 42, imprisoned in his basement and sexually abused her. Three of the children, now aged 5, 18 and 19, had never seen the light of day until the eldest was recently taken to hospital because of a severe illness. (Photo by Johannes Simon/Getty Images)

The Push to Make Pears the New Apples

Taryn Phaneuf

Amit Dhingra is on a mission to make America fall in love with the pear. In a lab at Washington State University, the 45-year-old horticulture researcher has dedicated much of the last decade to the shapely fruit. Building off relationships with pear growers who say their businesses are held The Push to Make Pears the New Apples A horticulturist wants a different fruit to rule America’s grocery aisles.

Building off relationships with pear growers who say their businesses are held back by a lack of scientific understanding of their product, Dhingra has mapped the pear genome, bred new trees, and even found a way to ripen the notoriously stiff fruit.

Throughout this work, Dhingra—who is affectionately known to some fruit growers in the Pacific Northwest as “Yogi Pear”—has been adamant in making the case that the pear is distinct from, and maybe more delicious than, its sexier, more successful sister: the apple. Pears can’t compete with the longstanding agricultural pinup in convenience and variety, he says—but only because they ’ve been pushed to the sidelines in research and marketing.

So he has taken it upon himself to level the playing field. With some better approaches, he believes, pears could step out from behind apples and come into their own. “Getting a nicely ripened pear is harder than winning the lottery, ” Dhingra says. “The true nature of the fruit hasn’t been explained.”

Agriculturally, pears have long sat in apples’ shadow, in large part because they haven’t been considered different enough to merit any special attention. “For decades, a lot of researchers have told [growers], ‘We’re going to study apples, and pears are like apples, so we’ll learn something about pears by studying apples, ’” says Tyson Koepke, a molecular plant scientist who works at a plant biotechnology company that spun out of Dhingra’s lab. “But pears are pears. They ’re not apples.”

In just one example of how scientific funding is allocated, the Washington Tree Fruit Research Commission, which doles out money for fruit-related projects in Washington, approved more than $1.7 million for apples in 2016. Cherries received nearly $800,000. Pears got about $590,000. The commission funds research based on how many tons of fruit are produced in the state. Industry groups pour additional funding into research, and because researchers’ time follows the money, they spend more man-hours developing new varieties and better trees for apples.

The success of Gala or Honeycrisp then sends more money back into the industry, which fuels more research, and so forth. The pear market has been flatfor the last 30 years. Fruit growers know consumer trends matter just as much in the produce bins as they do in the cereal aisle, so a lot of their efforts in breeding new varieties are dedicated to new gimmicks, like an apple that doesn’t brown.

Growers wait years—sometimes decades—for better trees whose fruits stand out from the other 600 fruits and vegetables in grocery stores. But the pear market has been flat for the last 30 years. Working against better funding and more diverse breeding practices is the fact that pears just aren’t that popular among consumers in the first place. “Pears are much more difficult to get out to the consumer at the right stage to eat, ” says Kate Evans, who runs WSU’s tree-fruit breeding program and focuses mostly on new and better apple varieties. That’s because, unlike apples, pears don’t ripen on the tree.

Ripening happens when starch converts to sugar—a process that isn’t activated for most pears until after they ’re picked and stored at a cool temperature for a certain length of time. Anjous, a popular variety, take 30 to 60 days of storing before they ’re ready to eat. “The apple doesn’t have to go through that post-harvest conditioning in order for it to soften and ripen and be really nice and edible, which makes the apple a much easier piece of fruit to work with, ” Evans says. In other words, pears are stuck. People don’t eat more pears because it’s difficult to tell when they ’re ripe and they don’t seem as versatile as apples. Marketers try to teach people how to pick pears and draw attention to recipes and health benefits, but so far it hasn’t worked. And that means there’s less money to find ways to make pears more appealing.

That’s where Dhingra comes in. He says it’s time to address the consumption problem by offering pears in a more convenient package. And sliced pears are his ticket to success.

Dhingra grew up in New Delhi, India, where he was surrounded by the struggle for food. While his parents wanted him to follow them into the medical field, he thought it would be more useful to help feed more people. He spent the last year of his Ph.D. in plant molecular biology at Rutgers University, and then went to the University of Florida, where he studied strawberries. In 2006, he joined WSU’s faculty for two reasons: to make a name for the school’s tree-fruit genomics research and to serve the needs of the fruit industry.

This suits him well; he’s become known for his conviction that basic science should go hand-in-hand with applied science. It’s important to him to explain how and why something works, as well as to find a way to change or leverage that feature for growers.

Dhingra’s research is tangible, says Kevin Moffitt, president and CEO of Pear Bureau Northwest, the marketing organization for fresh pears grown in Washington and Oregon. “He definitely has a soft spot for pears. He’s recognized a void where there hasn’t been a champion.” In a push to introduce sliced pears, Dhingra joined with Crunch Pak, the same company that popularized sliced apples—the ones that became the healthy alternative to chips or fries at fast-food restaurants. In the last couple of years, they’ve tested a ripening compound that helps pears ripen more predictably. Federal funding last year is allowing them to conduct taste tests.

Sliced apples changed the game by finding a way for fresh fruit to compete with novelties like Go-Gurt. Between 1980 and 2005, apple production jumped from 4.9 billion pounds to 6.6 billion pounds, thanks in large part to the introduction of apple slices, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Sliced apples contribute more than $250 million, or a tenth, to the apple market each year.

Crunch Pak claims Americans eat enough apple slices each year to average 65 whole apples per person. Pears are difficult to slice, package, and sell because of the way they ripen. But Dhingra has found a way around the problem using a two-step chemical approach. First, he applies SmartFresh, a compound already used on apples that blocks the ripening hormone ethylene.

This puts fruit into a state of “ suspended animation, ” Dhingra says, which allows them to be stored yearround. But treated pears never get soft and juicy like they should (“You can play baseball with those pears, ” Dhingra says). So Dhingra’s lab developed a second compound that reverses the effects of SmartFresh after it’s been applied. The idea is that pears can be treated with SmartFresh to be stored and sliced while they ’re hard, then brought back to life long enough to be sold.

Using industry funding, Dhingra has been working with Crunch Pak to test sliced pears. After figuring out how much of the compound to apply, they performed a large-scale taste trial at the Food Innovation Center in Portland. So far, he’s seen a positive response. They ’ll conduct tests for another year while waiting for a patent to be finalized. From there, his hope is that it gets licensed for production. Moffitt, who is optimistic yet conservative in his expectations of what slices could do for the pear market, guesses they could help the market grow by 9 percent in the near future. “It really depends on which variety and which sizes are pulled out, ” Moffitt says. Growers will sell fruit in whatever form they can, whether fresh or processed, like in a fruit cup.

Fresh pears make the most money, but not every pear makes the cut for grocery stores—it depends on the size and condition. So selling sliced pears may not fetch a higher price than selling a fresh, whole pear, but it could still mean a higher price than other processing options.

In Washington’s Wenatchee Valley, Josh Koempel turns his pickup onto a gravel path flanked by pear trees. His orchard is a picture of progress in the pear world, he says: Three generations of trees exist in this one area, and the differences in how they were planted are startling if you know what to look for. Like everything else about pears, the best way to grow the fruits is poorly understood.

For decades, apples and cherries have benefitted from trees bred to be small, because shorter trees are easier to work with. Growing systems that space their branches uniformly apart have allowed apple growers to plant trees closer together in ways that capture more light, so they produce more quality fruit in less space. Koempel doesn’t wantto be content with a consistent but underwhelming output; he wants pears to be stars. Pears, meanwhile, still grow on taller trees that take up more space.

The lack of innovation stems partly from how reliably pear trees produce fruit in the first place. “Pears are pretty steady in terms of return. … Apples are more volatile. Cherries are crazy, ” Koempel says. “If it comes over and rains today on top of a cherry crop, the cherries will absorb water so fast, they ’ll crack.” Because growers are content with the fruit’s stability, they ’re less inclined to change and innovate. “Sometimes your greatest strengths are also your biggest weaknesses, ” Koempel says.

But like Dhingra, whom Koempel met in 2007 and convinced to map the pear genome, Koempel doesn’t want to be content with a consistent but underwhelming output; he wants pears to be stars. He’s trying to see how densely he can plant pear trees to get the best, most consistent fruit while making picking as efficient as possible. In his orchard, the oldest section of pear trees includes plenty of elbow room and gnarled branches jutting out in every direction; the aisle is probably big enough for Koempel’s pickup.

Another block, which his dad put in about 20 years ago, includes trees planted a little closer together with branches that grow with slightly more uniformity but still cast shadows on fruit growing lower on the tree. The newest section is an experiment. It consists of a few rows of one pear variety, then another, in a system that’s used by apple growers but doesn’t exist for pears. The trees are trained to grow two-dimensionally on a trellis, with branches reaching to the sides but not to the front or back.

As they grow, Koempel coaxes them out diagonally, leaning toward the open aisle between rows, so the fruit captures light more evenly. “A lot of what’s driving what I’m doing in pears right now is making people more efficient by the way we manipulate the system, ” Koempel says. “The problem with agriculture, at least in the tree world, is it takes a long time to change.

Computers double every six months. For us to go from here to there is a 10-year endeavor. By the time you get things changed and up to speed to where we think we’re doing good, you’re always gambling. Did the American consumer decide to go somewhere else?” Dhingra thinks expanding the pear market through sliced pears could work backwards and invigorate the rest of the growth and distribution system. Developing a new product is faster than addressing the more basic needs of growers.

But it’s only one of many projects he’s pursuing that might be able to bring pears closer to apples’ level—and that could shape the fruit-growing industry on the whole. In addition to wanting more people to eat pears, the pear industry wants new rootstocks—the bases of trees that genetically determine their characteristics. When a grower plants an orchard, he buys rootstocks, then takes cuttings from other trees and grafts it onto them.

The cutting dictates which variety the tree will produce, like Bartlett, Anjou, or Comice; the rootstock determines the tree’s size, the spacing and angle of its branches, when it will first produce fruit, and so forth. Pear growers are on the hunt for rootstocks that give them hardy, dwarfed trees that produce fruit early, with branches at nearly 90-degree angles.

But planting new pear varieties hasn’t been a priority for growers, in part because they don’t have rootstocks with the features they want. Since new orchards are expensive, growers don’t want to take that step until they ’re certain that they—and the public—will like the result.

Traditionally, the process of developing new rootstocks that can be used by growers takes 20 years or more. But time is an impediment Dhingra has already found a solution to.

During his research, his lab stumbled upon a way to grow plants more quickly without soil. He commercialized the method and formed Phytelligence, an agriculture biotechnology company, in 2012. The company grows plants in jars in a nutrient-rich solution. After a month, each plant can be cut and multiplied into two or three pieces.

In a year, one bud becomes 250,000 plants. Where it takes three to five years to get new trees from a nursery, Phytelligence could provide new rootstocks ready to be budded in 12 to 18 months.  “Ten years ago, when I started touring the industry, I didn’t want them to tell me one problem. I wanted to see how does this all connect?” Dhingra says. “We’re not solving one problem at a time. The only thing I think I did is connect the dots.”

Phytelligence Sells Out Entire Capacity for Spring 2017 Orders

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Phytelligence, a platform agricultural biotechnology company that is revolutionizing the way food crops are grown, today announced the closing of their Spring 2017 booking season, turning away over 1 million in unfulfilled plant requests due to selling out their entire plant capacity. Despite expanding their volume 10 times over from 2015 to 2016, Phytelligence sold out of their available plant stock for the Spring 2017 season. The company is rapidly increasing capacity to support growers and remedy the severe shortage of quality rootstock in the industry. Phytelligence is already booking orders for Spring 2018 and expects a short selling window as growers scramble for viable plants.

 

Founder and Chief Science Officer Amit Dhingra said, “I founded Phytelligence in 2012 to solve growers problems, including the scarcity of good quality plant materials and rootstock. We will continue to grow at a rapid pace until we have serviced our grower customers’ needs.”

 

Phytelligence began the year strong by establishing their Seattle headquarters, starting the Portland tissue culture lab, and pivoting the Pullman location to focus on discovery and genetics. In just 5 months, sales for Phytelligence are already four times what was achieved the entire year in 2015.

 

Selling for the Spring 2018 season is underway as Phytelligence looks to take advantage of their new increased plant capacity. Customers looking for rootstock should plan to book soon before Spring 2018 is sold out.

 

Phytelligence currently offers virus clean, genetically true to type, healthy plants in the following crops:

  • Apple
  • Pear
  • Cherry
  • Blueberry
  • Strawberry
  • Raspberry
  • Grape
  • Almond
  • Hops

The company encourages growers to contact Tim O’Brien at 206-719-5317 or timobrien@phytelligence.com for more information on available plants.

 

About Phytelligence

Phytelligence is a platform agricultural biotechnology company that is revolutionizing the way food crops are grown. Utilizing its proprietary growing techniques to provide superior quality crops, Phytelligence enables higher grower profit by increasing speed to harvest and reducing input costs. Phytelligence provides additional value to food crop growers and plant breeders through the application of advanced genetics enabling 100 percent guaranteed delivery of accurate plants, disease screening, plant repository services, securing of intellectual property, and the ability to co-develop new varieties of food crops. In addition, Phytelligence has a growing pipeline of biological and compound solutions aimed at improving returns throughout the food crop value chain.

 

Phytelligence was founded by Dr. Amit Dhingra in 2012 out of his Horticulture Genomics and Biotechnology Research laboratory at Washington State University and is headquartered in Seattle with offices in Pullman, Washington and Portland, Oregon.

 

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Contact:

Ashley Ennis

Director of Marketing and PR for Phytelligence

ashleyennis@phytelligence.com

(206) 300-9891

 

 

 

 

Biotechnology Company Partners with Grower to Develop New Cherry Varieties

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By David Eddy – Growing Produce

Phytelligence, a platform agricultural biotechnology company, has entered into a service agreement with TNV, LLC, a Tip Top Orchards licensed company, to aid in the development and growth of new and desirable cherry varieties.

They will be utilizing Phytelligence’s genetic analysis capabilities, its genetic repository services, and its proprietary plant multiplication and growth processes.

TNV, based in Wenatchee, WA, and Phytelligence, based in Seattle, hope to co-develop new natural cherry varieties faster than the traditional process with the Phytelligence proprietary plant multiplication process and TNV’s industry knowledge and connections. Phytelligence’s genetic analysis capabilities will also be used to file patent applications and protect TNV’s new varieties.

“Their deep understanding of plant genetics in general, and cherries in particular, coupled with their rapid propagation process makes Phytelligence an obvious choice,” said Troy Toftness, partner at TNV. “The company’s genetic technology will help us make better breeding selections when discovering, patenting, and producing novel cherry varieties. Using their propagation techniques, we’ll be able to get large quantities of the newly commercialized varieties to market faster.”

TNV is licensed by Tip Top Orchards, who discovered the ‘Tip Top’ cherry and developed the Skylar Rae brand, named for the beloved late daughter of Troy and Kim Toftness. In 2005, shortly after Skylar Rae’s passing, the family discovered a tree bearing a different looking cherry in their orchard.

The fruit it produced had unique genetics, as confirmed by Phytelligence, and was unlike anything anyone had ever tasted before. They named the variety the ‘Tip Top’ cultivar after the orchard and began selling high quality cherries under the Skylar Rae brand to honor their daughter’s name and carry on her legacy.

‘Tip Top’ trees are licensed for production to C & O Nursery in Wenatchee, and worldwide licensing rights are held by SNV, LLC. Phytelligence has pledged to donate a portion of its revenue generated through the partnership to the Skylar Rae Fund set up to help children and families. Donations have been made to the Seattle Children’s Hospital.

“Phytelligence was created to help food crop growers, like the Toftness family, develop new varieties using our genetics skills and proprietary tissue culture techniques to produce stronger, healthier plants faster than ever before,” said Ken Hunt, Phytelligence CEO. “Our number one goal with this partnership is to collaborate with TNV and develop the best new cherries in the industry that we can then quickly get in the hands of customers.”