Biotech firm’s $28.5m boost in battle to save bananas from extinction threat
PUBLISHED: 19:31 04 June 2020 | UPDATED: 19:32 04 June 2020
A pioneering Norwich biotech company has raised $28.5m of investment to drive forward its urgent efforts to save the world’s banana crops from being destroyed by disease.
Tropic Biosciences, based at the Norwich Research Park, uses cutting-edge plant breeding and gene editing technologies to improve commercial varieties of banana and coffee plants.
Since 2018 the company has been leading the international drive to create a new type of banana which is resistant to Panama Disease (also known as TR4), which experts describe as an “existential threat to the banana industry”.
Those efforts stepped up a gear last August after the destructive disease was found to have spread to Latin America, from where the majority of the world’s bananas are exported.
The investment, believed to be the largest-ever venture capital funding in the UK agri-tech sector, will help Tropic to continue expanding its 60-strong Norfolk workforce, and take their laboratory work into the field with trials in South America and south-east Asia.
Chief executive Gilad Gershon said: “Humanity’s battle against the Covid-19 pandemic is rapidly accelerating the need for technological solutions that promote food security on a global scale.
“Bananas are the fourth most important food crop globally, and the industry provides incomes for 125m people around the world.
“99pc of global banana exports that you buy locally in the supermarket are a single variety called Cavendish. All these bananas are genetically identical in the field, so the problem is that every disease or pest, or even a change in the weather, have the potential to affect the whole global production.
“When Panama Disease enters a banana field, not only will it kill the bananas in the field, it will stay in the ground for 50 years so that land is no longer viable for growing bananas.
“As it is today, there is no effective way to treat it, besides quarantine, and that is not bullet-proof.
“In August 2019 it spread to Latin America, and 85pc of global banana exports come from there, so the clock has sped up significantly. People in the industry are rightly concerned that this has the potential to have a drastic negative impact on banana production in the next few years.
“Tropic Biosciences is probably the most mature and dedicated global effort to combat this from a genetic perspective. We have 60 people here now, and within a few years we are hoping to commercialise a resistant variety which means the bananas grown in Latin America will have been developed here in Norwich.”
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The company’s successful “Series B” round of equity funding attracted influential new backers including Temasek, a global investment company headquartered in Singapore.
The cash injection will also allow Tropic to broaden its focus and apply its gene editing techniques to a third crop – rice – in an effort to alleviate the impact of climate change on the production of this major global food staple.
Since its “Series A” funding round in early 2018, the company has grown from 17 to 60 staff. Mr Gershon, who is originally from Israel, said he now expects to see further significant employment growth for the firm’s Norwich team, which already includes 19 nationalities.
“The reason we came to Norwich to begin with is because the city has some of the best plant geneticists globally at institutes like the John Innes Centre, The Sainsbury Laboratory and the University of East Anglia so it gives us the ability to recruit very talented people,” he said.
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