California startup Sound Agriculture is launching a pilot project with its new tomato, which it says has been bred quickly using epigenetic techniques to be both flavorful and durable.
If you take the seeds of a grape from France, transport them across the Atlantic and plant them in Missouri, California or Oregon, they’ll all have basically the same set of genes. But if you wait a few years and then eat the grapes or drink the wine grown from those original seeds or their descendents, you might notice that the flavors might be vastly different, thanks to the impact of what’s in the soil or what the weather was like when the grapes were grown.
In some cases, after a few generations, if you were to take the seeds of the Californian descendents of the original French seeds, you might find that even when grown in French soil, they still taste more like the ones grown in California than grapes with seeds that have always been grown in France, even though they’ll still likely have the same set of genes.
To biologists, this is called epigenetics–when environmental changes impact how genes are turned on and off in DNA, impacts that can even be heritable across generations. And it’s this process that California-based agtech startup Sound Agriculture aims to take advantage of to make a tomato that has the durability of what you’d typically buy at the grocery store with the flavor of something you’d buy at the farmer’s market.
“To our knowledge, this will be the first product to get to consumers that has actually been bred with epigenetics,” says Travis Bayer, the company’s chief technology officer.
On Tuesday, the company announced that it’s taking its new tomato directly to consumers. It’s partnering with grocery distributor S. Katzman Produce to deliver its new tomato, which it calls Summer Swell, to grocery stores in the New York City metropolitan area as a pilot program.
What her customers are looking for, the distributor’s executive vice-president Stefanie Katzman tells Forbes, is flavor. But getting there isn’t as easy as it sounds. Usually with tomatoes, she explains, you can either get something flavorful that doesn’t last very long, or something firm and durable that’s lacking in flavor. Not both.
“As soon as they mentioned it eats like an heirloom tomato, that’s where my ears perked up,” she says. “That’s usually a very delicate tomato and their big claim is that you can get it ripe and have it be good for the next week and a half. So I was a little bit skeptical but more so intrigued.”
Getting rid of the tradeoff between durability and flavor in tomatoes was the major goal for Sound Agriculture, which was founded in 2013 by Bayer, 42, and Eric Davidson, 43, now the company’s 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 grown the number of its employees to 140.
Sound launched its first product, a crop additive called Source that encourages microbial activity near root systems, in 2020, and while it declined to state specific revenue figures, it said it had seen over 400% growth in 2022 and is on track to grow its 2022 revenue by about 300% in 2023.
“If you look at the parent Brandywine variety and you look at Summer Swell, they’re actually genetically identical. The DNA hasn’t changed at all.”
The company started kicking around the idea for a better tomato about two years ago, says CEO Adam Litle, 41, who joined the company in 2020. The company studied a Brandywine heirloom tomato and realized that it had a gene whose expression was causing its cell walls to break down faster than a grocery store tomato. In other words, making it mushier, faster.
A traditional breeder would approach this problem by growing a bunch of the tomatoes, possibly crossed with a more durable variety, and slowly over the generations make a tomato that preserved most of the heirloom flavor while staying firmer longer. A genetics company might try to genetically engineer a more stable tomato that kept flavorful genes. But in both cases, it would be an expensive process that would take the better part of a decade to bring a product to market.
What Sound Agriculture did, Bayer explains, was develop a solution made up of pieces of the tomato’s own DNA that, when a plant is alive, helps to guide particular genes to turn themselves on or off. In this case, they selected bits of the plant DNA that regulated the cell walls of the tomato. The company soaked the tomato seeds in this solution as they started to germinate, locking in the gene expression pathway.
The result was Summer Swell, which the company says preserved both the flavor of the heirloom variety while also being able to last longer, and which bred true after more than six generations. “And it’s interesting,” says Bayer. “If you look at the parent Brandywine variety and you look at Summer Swell, they’re actually genetically identical. The DNA hasn’t changed at all.”
When Summer Swell is launched in its pilot, Katzman explains, the tomatoes will be shipped out to retailers and food service customers, and from there the distributor will be looking for feedback from every angle – from consumers to chefs to stockers, while also seeking opinions on every aspect of the tomato itself. That not only includes soliciting impressions that people in the chain get, but also looking at data like repeat purchases.
The pilot, says Litle, will “test product-market fit, and from there we have the option of scaling up. We want to be responsible and proven before we get into some super expensive capital commitments.” But if all goes well, he says, the company aims to move into more types of produce using epigenetics, with a couple of different business strategies depending on the results of the pilot.
“It’s extremely exciting for consumers,” says Bayer of his company’s product launch. “Because it will mark the beginning of an era of more differentiated produce, more stable produce and tastier produce, all coming to the market faster.”