This startup says it can grow a better tomato on demand

California startup Sound Agriculture is piloting its new tomato, which it says was rapidly bred using epigenetic techniques to be both tasty and durable.

IIf you take the pips of a grape from France, transport them across the Atlantic and plant them in Missouri, California or Oregon, they all have basically the same genes. But if you wait a few years and then eat the grapes or drink the wine grown from those original seeds or their descendants, you might find that the flavors can be very different than they were then, thanks to the effects of soil or weather when the grapes were grown.

If, after a few generations, you take the seeds of the Californian descendants of the original French seeds, you will find in some cases that even when grown on French soil, they still taste more like those grown in California than after grape seeds that have always been grown in France, although they will probably still have the same genes.

Biologists call this epigenetics—when environmental changes affect how genes in DNA turn on and off, effects that can even be heritable across generations. And it’s this process that California-based agtech startup Sound Agriculture hopes to use to make a tomato that has the shelf life of what you’d typically buy at the grocery store, with the flavor of something you find at the farmer’s market would buy.

“To our knowledge, this will be the first product that has actually been bred using epigenetics,” said Travis Bayer, the company’s chief technology officer.

On Tuesday, the company announced that it is bringing its new tomato directly to consumers. It’s working with grocer S. Katzman Produce to ship its new tomato, which it’s calling Summer Swell, to grocery stores in the New York City area as a pilot program.

Stefanie Katzman, Executive Vice President of the distributor, explains what her customers are looking for forbes, is taste. But getting there isn’t as easy as it sounds. Usually, she explains, with tomatoes you either get something tasty that doesn’t last very long, or something firm and durable that lacks flavor. Not both.

“As soon as they mentioned that she eats like an old tomato, my ears pricked up their ears,” she says. “This is usually a very delicate tomato and their big claim is that you can ripen it and it’s good for the next week and a half. So I was a bit skeptical, but all the more intrigued.”

Eliminating the trade-off between shelf life and taste in tomatoes was the main goal of Sound Agriculture, which was founded in 2013 by Bayer (42) and Eric Davidson (43), the company’s current Chief Product Officer. Over the past 10 years, the company has raised $160 million in venture capital from firms such as BMO Capital Markets, Mission Bay Capital and Leaps by Bayer and has grown its workforce to 140 employees.

Sound launched its first product in 2020, a plant additive called Source, which promotes microbial activity near root systems, and while it declined to provide specific sales figures, it said it was growing over 400% in 2022. and is on track to grow its 2022 sales by about 300% in 2023.

“If you look at parent strain Brandywine and Summer Swell, they are actually genetically identical. The DNA hasn’t changed at all.”

Travis Bayer

The company started with the idea for a better tomato about two years ago, says CEO Adam Litle, 41, who joined the company in 2020. The company examined an old Brandywine tomato and found that it had a gene whose expression caused its cell walls to collapse faster than a supermarket tomato. In other words, to make it squispier and faster.

A traditional grower would address this issue by growing a bunch of tomatoes, possibly crossed with a more durable variety, and slowly crafting, over generations, a tomato that retains most of the heirloom flavor while staying firm longer. A GM company could try to genetically engineer a more stable tomato that retains flavorful genes. But either way, it would be an expensive process that would take nearly a decade to get a product to market.

According to Bayer, Sound Agriculture developed a solution consisting of pieces of the tomato’s own DNA that, when a plant is alive, helps trick certain genes into turning themselves on or off. In this case, they selected parts of the plant DNA that regulate tomato cell walls. The company soaked the tomato seeds in this solution as they began to germinate and blocked the gene expression pathway.

The result was Summer Swell, which the company says has both retained the flavor of the heirloom strain and has a longer shelf life, proven over more than six generations. “And it’s interesting,” says Bayer. “If you look at parent strain Brandywine and Summer Swell, they are actually genetically identical. The DNA hasn’t changed at all.”

When Summer Swell launches in its pilot, Katzman explains, the tomatoes will be shipped to retailers and foodservice customers, and from there the retailer will seek feedback from every direction — from consumers to chefs to storekeepers while he also gets opinions on every aspect of the tomato itself. This includes not only getting impressions that people in the chain are getting, but also looking at data like repeat purchases.

The pilot, says Litle, will “test the product’s suitability for the market, and from there we have the ability to scale. We want to be responsible and proven before making super-expensive capital commitments.” But if all goes well, he says, the company aims to use epigenetics to get into more types of products, with a few different business strategies depending on the results of the pilot project.

“This is extremely exciting for consumers,” says Bayer about the product launch of his company. “Because it will mark the beginning of an era of more differentiated products, more stable products and tastier products, all of which are coming to market faster.”

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