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AI startup speeds up the creation of climate-resilient crops

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According to TechCrunch Disrupt AI news, creating crops that’ll endure climate change — think worse droughts, heat waves and pests — is a time-consuming and costly feat. Avalo is betting its machine learning models can speed that process up and make it a whole lot cheaper too. 

The Durham, North Carolina–based startup, which pitched onstage at the TechCrunch Disrupt Startup Battlefield competition, doesn’t edit plant genes or breed crop varieties the traditional way. Instead, the AI company aims to supercharge crop breeding by quickly identifying the genetic basis of complex traits, such as heat tolerance.

In doing so, Avalo avoids much of the guesswork and waiting typically involved in crop breeding. CEO Brendan Collins explained in a call with TechCrunch, “We actually don’t care about the plant expressing the [desired] trait in the field, because we just genotype all the seedlings, and we know which ones are going to be the winners and which ones are going to be the losers already.”

Instead of testing crosses annually, Avalo “can bring seedlings into growth chambers and greenhouses and breed them under accelerated conditions,” said Collins. For most row crops, that translates to “four development cycles” in a single year versus just one, the CEO added.

The process is based on Avalo science chief Mariano Alvarez’s post-doctoral studies at Duke. TechCrunch did a deep dive into it two years ago, when Avalo had only secured a $3 million seed round. The startup has since raised another $3 million and today announced its intent to raise a $10 million Series A this fall.

According to Collins, Avalo proved its process recently when it created a fast-maturing broccoli variety for a vertical-farming startup called Iron Ox. Collins says Avalo succeeded, only you can’t try it yet, because the effort collapsed as the vertical-farming bubble popped earlier this year.

Avalo is still working with greenhouses to get the advanced broccoli on the market, but the CEO said he is now more focused on the startup’s other efforts. They include aiding in the cultivation of a latex-producing dandelion; finding and licensing valuable traits, such as pest-resistance, in soy and corn; and a just-launched effort to cultivate drought-tolerant cotton.