Four major nurseries that form the North American group of the International New Varieties Network (INN) have made a significant investment in a new biotechnology company called Phytelligence.
Phytelligence, which is based in Pullman, Washington, was founded in 2011 by Washington State University genomicist Dr. Amit Dhingra with a number of his graduate students who had developed micropropagation protocols and techniques for identifying plants through genetic analysis. The company can quickly and accurately produce plants through tissue culture and guarantee their identity.
Over the past year, serial entrepreneur Chris Leyerle, who is Phytelligence’s chief executive officer, has been raising seed funding to hire staff and equip the lab. The four INN nurseries who have invested in the company are: C&O Nursery, Wenatchee, Washington; Van Well Nursery, East Wenatchee; Willow Drive Nursery, Ephrata, Washington; and ProTree Nurseries in Brentwood, California.
Jack Snyder, president of C&O Nursery, has joined Dhingra and Leyerle on the three-person board of directors.
Snyder said the INN members saw value in being able to use genetic analysis to identify plants. First, it could help the nurseries protect their new and patented varieties. Second, it can ensure that nurseries deliver exactly what the growers ordered. Snyder said several cases of mistaken identity involving Geneva rootstocks have underlined the importance of DNA testing before mass production begins. He foresees that the nurseries will have genetic analysis done of mother trees and the second-generation scion blocks.
The nurseries also are interested in having a tissue culture lab at their disposal to get new varieties out to growers more quickly. Not only is tissue culture faster than traditional propagation in the field, but it also requires fewer resources, such as land and employees, Snyder said.
While Phytelligence has experience on the biotechnology side, Snyder noted that the four nurseries can lend their deep industry experience to the new company.
“We can give them guidance, and we can learn from one another,” he said.
“We believe that the technology that Phytelligence has will be a good fit in our agricultural community.”
Kim and Troy Toftness, cherry growers in Wenatchee, Washington, have also become investors in Phytelligence. They own the Skylar Rae cherry brand (Tip Top cultivar) and believe that DNA analysis of planting material could help protect the variety from unauthorized propagation. They might also want to propagate the variety through tissue culture in the future, if there’s a need to quickly ramp up the supply of nursery trees.
Troy said he and his wife wanted to support the young company as they are both graduates of WSU. As well as being involved in their orchard, she works as a chiropractor, and he is a pharmacist.
Leyerle said more than 70 percent of the initial round of investments came from within the tree fruit industry. “We’re very pleased that Jack Snyder and other industry leaders who are part of the INN have made a tangible expression of confidence in what we do and the value of what we do.”
Leyerle is now working on the second round of investor funding that will help Phytelligence expand its operations to become profitable and is looking for more support from industry investors.
“They are uniquely poised to understand the value of what we do,” he said. “Ideally, investors bring contacts, experience, and advice as we grow the company and are very valuable to us.”
Phytelligence currently has three full-time staff and several part-time staff and consultants. Leyerle expects the company will eventually expand its customer base overseas.