Finistere leads $5.3m raise for biotech company

ZeaKal will use the money to begin testing on genetically modified soy with potentially enhanced photosynthetic abilities.

Finistere Ventures has led a $5.3 million funding round for California-based biotech start-up ZeaKal. Other investors include Middleland Capital, unnamed family offices and individual investors.

ZeaKal has also bought Algenetix, a biotech and biofuel company backed by ZeaKal investor Kapyon Ventures. The companies will share technologies, but it is unclear whether the Algenetix brand will continue. The $5.3 million round will finance growth at ZeaKal for 3 years.

The Series B round brings ZeaKal’s total funding to $9.1 million. The company will use the raise to develop PhotoSeed, a line of seeds genetically modified to improve yield through more efficient use of water, carbon dioxide and sunlight. The company wants to begin field trials on a soybean plant developed with PhotoSeed’s synthetic genetic traits this May.

“ZeaKal will be funded until the beginning of 2019,” said ZeaKal chief executive Han Chen. “It allows us to do four seasons of field trials; three trials in North America and one in Latin America.”

While many biotech products focus on resistance to pests and herbicides, ZeaKal has been developing larger, more robust plants by increasing their ability to photosynthesise.

“The first generation of biotech has focused on screening technologies from different species and then [developing] those technologies in different crops,” said Chen.

“I think biotech hasn’t really achieved that sort of thing for more complex areas like photosynthetic efficiency because the genes that affect that are much more complicated.”

Chen thinks it will take another five to six years to bring PhotoSeed to market, depending on the success of field trials and regulatory approvals. He said PhotoSeed’s technology could also allow for shorter growing cycles and better weed resistance.

ZeaKal’s focus on developing higher yield crops that are less vulnerable to adverse growing conditions is a response to increasing concerns that water scarcity and climate volatility will pose a challenge to global agri production as growing, wealthier populations push up demand for food.

“The need for innovation in the farming and food sector is important not only for farmers and consumers, but also for agtech itself,” said Finistere Ventures partner Arama Kukutai in a statement. “I think ZeaKal is a revolutionary technology play in plant sciences.”

Finistere Ventures is a California-based fund management firm focusing on agricultural innovation and life sciences investments. In February 2015, the firm held a $150 million first close on its second venture vehicle which is targeting $200 million, as reported by Agri Investor.

Middleland Capital is a private investment firm focused on early-stage agtech companies.