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NewLeaf Symbiotics Buys Intuitive Genomics to Add Bioinformatics Component to AgBio R&D Pipeline


NewLeaf Symbiotics, an agricultural biotechnology company, has acquired bioinformatics consulting company Intuitive Genomics for an undisclosed amount to develop bespoke solutions for analyzing and interpreting genomic data.

Under the terms of the acquisition, the financial details of which have not been disclosed, Intuitive's employees will join NewLeaf's staff and take on leadership roles within the venture-backed company. Specifically, James Carrington, president of the Donald Danforth Plant Science Center in St. Louis — where several Intuitive employees also hold appointments — is joining NewLeaf's science advisory board.

In addition, Todd Mockler, associate member and an investigator at the Danforth Center will be vice president of genomics at NewLeaf; and Doug Bryant, who is the director of the Danforth Center's bioinformatics core, will be vice president of bioinformatics at NewLeaf.

Before the acquisition closes — the exact date isn't being disclosed — Intuitive's team will wrap up existing software engagements and help current clients come up with alternative solutions for their informatics needs, Bryant told BioInform. Intuitive doesn't disclose the identity of its customers for confidentiality reasons but the company says its tools are used by academic and government research laboratories as well as commercial labs to analyze data from plants, animals, and microbes.

According to its website, Intuitive has designed solutions for genome sequence assembly, gene prediction and annotation, transcriptome analysis, metagenomic sequence assembly and analysis, data visualization, and more. It's also consulted with customers on experimental design, data generation, and results interpretation. "Our strengths [involve] … working very closely with the customer and the problem to design [custom] solutions that… answer the question that’s been asked," Bryant said.

While NewLeaf isn't providing explicit details about how it's going to use the informatics intellectual property it's just acquired, it's clear that these tools will support the company's efforts to develop a natural plant treatment that can improve the health and development of a variety of crops. In a statement, Tom Laurita, NewLeaf's CEO described the informatics IP as "substantial" and said that "a deep genomics and bioinformatics capability will be key to unlocking the full potential of our prescriptive biologics platform, R&D breakthroughs, and the positive field results we are demonstrating.”

NewLeaf is developing plant biologics based on a family of bacteria called pink-pigmented facultative methylotrophs, or PPFMs, that are commonly found on plants in nature. Research studies have shown that these symbiotic microorganisms use up plant metabolism waste products and produce growth hormones and other beneficial metabolites that promote healthy crop growth, suppress disease, and increase yield.

Laurita said that the firm is working with a collection of PPFM strains to analyze, both from a genomic and phenotypic perspective, the effects of administering different rates, titers, timings, and combinations of strains to crops such as corn, soybean, lettuce, and tomatoes. NewLeaf hopes to discover what the most optimal applications are for growing healthy crops andto bring a product to market within a year.

NewLeaf's relationship with Intuitive began when the agbio firm hired the bioinformatics consultancy to develop bioinformatics solutions to support its biologic development efforts, particularly around better understanding the genetic basis of the bacterial and plant activities their studies show.

"Intuitive provides very valuable services to its clients [and] we certainly could have been just a client," Laurita told BioInform. However, "our business plan is to develop not only in-house capabilities but to make full use of the opportunities that bioinformatics offers and, … we felt that it was much more beneficial to [acquire Intuitive] rather than pay for services … we become a much different player [in the agbio marketplace] than we would otherwise have been."

Having internal IP also makes it easier to create custom solutions as needed for each product that NewLeaf intends to develop, Stephen Kahn, NewLeaf's senior vice president and CFO, added.

The arrangement is also a good fit for Intuitive, Carrington said, "particularly from the standpoint of focusing the experience, the expertise, and the assets of Intuitive into a specific problem that has potential huge benefits for agriculture."

Furthermore, "NewLeaf Symbiotic feels that the expertise and the value that they gain from the bioinformatics, the genomics, and the algorithm building that we do is of strategic importance to the company [and] we certainly agreed," he added.

Both Intuitive and NewLeaf are housed in the Bio Research and Development Growth(BRDG) park, a bioresearch incubator for agbio companies located on — but not owned by — Danforth's campus. "This acquisition came about because [the companies] were co-localized and working in the same ecosystem and this is the kind of thing we want to promote both at BRDG and at the Danforth Plant Science Center," Carrington noted, adding that it's "an effective way to commercialize in the agricultural technology sector."

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