Welcome to this interview featuring Hein Kruyt, Co-founder & CEO of Solynta, a Dutch startup revolutionizing agriculture through hybrid potato breeding to address the global food crisis.
In this interview, we’ll explore Solynta’s innovative agricultural technology, enabling the development of hybrid true potato seeds. These seeds offer farmers a non-GMO, pest-resilient, reliable, and sustainable potato option, bolstering the agricultural industry. Hein will share the challenges Solynta faced while establishing and strengthening its position and how they overcame them. We’ll also gain insights into their strategies for securing significant funding and their exciting vision for the future.
Join us as we discover how Solynta’s science and technology are enhancing farmers’ livelihoods and contributing to global food security and sustainability.
Can you walk us through your entrepreneurial journey and how it led you to co-found Solynta?
This entrepreneurial journey started when I was the Chief Financial Officer at a global tomato seed breeder. There, I explored further growth opportunities for our company, which included a possible venture into the potato world. Potatoes weren’t my first choice, as their challenging growing logistics, perishability, bulkiness and lack of innovation led to low margins. But my team members argued that the potato is in the same family as the tomato and could produce similar breeding. However, unlike tomatoes, farmers didn’t use the seeds (called true potato seeds) to plant their fields because they weren’t identical. Instead, farmers were condemned to use last year’s tubers.
That same evening, I delved into research to understand the potential potato opportunity. It soon became clear to me: if we could enable hybrid breeding in potatoes and provide the world with true potato seeds, the growth potential would be unlimited.
Achieving successful hybrid potato breeding was the challenge. In fact, many considered this quest the “Holy Grail” of potato breeding. A new R&D director joined the company, and he shared my enthusiasm for the concept. In fact, he had tried to convince his university to research the topic but hadn’t succeeded because every potato researcher knew it was impossible.
This combination of business and science felt like serendipity. We started with five research projects, of which four were unsuccessful. When the company was acquired, the new owners were not interested in funding our work. This was our cue to launch an independent potato project (with stakeholder approval, of course).
With only one potential research project left, we continued with an admittedly high-risk plan to convert potatoes into a hybrid crop. Many research groups worldwide had explored this idea and decided it was impossible, but we had no idea then.
What does Solynta do, and why do you think it’s relevant and timely in the present context?
Solynta’s work is incredibly relevant to today’s world. I’ll start by sharing more about the potato as background.
Potatoes are probably the world’s most important food crop, with the highest potential to feed the growing population. It grows almost everywhere, offers superior nutrition to cereals like rice and wheat, and requires significantly less water. But there are two main drawbacks to the crop, which is where Solynta operates.
- Seeds versus seed-tubers
Farmers traditionally grow potato crops using last year’s tubers. It takes 2,500 kg of tubers to plant a hectare, and they are often riddled with disease and other contaminants. Potatoes are difficult to ship and store, and shipping trucks of seed tubers spreads potato diseases around the world. It also takes years to produce sufficient volumes of planting material.
In comparison, Solynta’s true-potato-seeds only require 25 grams of pristine, healthy seeds to plant a hectare. They are completely free of diseases and easy to ship and store. We can also produce seeds much faster than tubers because a potato plant produces 5,000 seeds per plant, so the supply chain scales 500 times faster than the traditional tuber-based system (which only produces about 10 tubers per plant). And, of course, the farmer does not lose 10% of their yield because they must save tubers for next year’s planting.
2. Potato breeding is challenging.
Here’s an example: the Russet Burbank variety is the most common in the USA, despite being invented in 1875! Can you imagine that despite 150 years of scientific progress, we have been unable to improve it? This is due to the complicated genetic makeup of the potato. While resistance to pests and diseases naturally exists in potatoes, traditional breeders have not yet been able to cross these resistances into existing varieties, as is common practice in vegetables like tomatoes. Therefore, potatoes stayed very susceptible to pests and require intense agrochemical usage for successful growth.
Solynta’s innovation unlocks hybrid breeding in potatoes. Solynta’s (non-GMO) technology enables our researchers to combine beneficial traits into existing hybrid varieties. We provide farmers with hybrid varieties that have resistance against pest and diseases but also tolerance to climate factors like heat, drought, and salinity, making them much more robust against climate change. In addition, we can also breed for specific consumer preferences, like organic varieties or shorter cooking times or business needs, like improved starch and protein levels for better fries and chips.
To go back to relevance, in the coming six years, we aim to increase potato yields by one-third, reduce the need for pesticides by two-thirds, and reduce greenhouse gas emissions by one-third. Supplying our seeds in almost unlimited quantities will unlock valuable food production for farmers worldwide. Our innovation in potato breeding will contribute to the UN SDGs of zero hunger, no poverty, and climate action. We’re ready to change the world with a tiny potato seed.
Looking back to the process of establishing and strengthening Solynta’s position, what were the main challenges you encountered, and how did you overcome them?
I’ll break this down into four main areas.
(1) Balancing different viewpoints. Because we looked at potatoes through the lens of a tomato breeder instead of a potato breeder, we could recognize untapped potential. For example, we were focusing on the potato flowers because that’s the origin of the next generation. A potato breeder would be more inclined to look at the potato tuber instead. It was also challenging to weigh the different viewpoints of science and business to take risks, define projects, and decide on our direction.
(2) Considering different scenarios for funding. We knew it would take a long time to break even when we started. Building traditional investment cases based on ROI (return on investment) didn’t make sense for our work. We could reach the right investors by building a “real option” model and future scenarios. This kind of option thinking also helped define specific deliverables and milestones, which act as value inflexion points. These built the story for the next funding round and empowered us to focus on delivering these milestones and securing additional funding.
(3) Don’t underestimate the red tape.
To achieve regulatory approval, many startups need to pay more attention to lead time and the risk-averse nature of the regulators.
We thought we could get a patent granted by the EPO in three years, but it took 12 instead. If you want to cross a border with potato seeds, you need to declare them with customs. The problem? Potato seeds are so new that they do not exist in customs books. And if it doesn’t exist on paper, it is not allowed, and border officials must destroy it. It’s the same story in the EU as well. Potato seeds do not exist in the legislation, so you are not allowed to sell it. That is not very helpful to your business model. I recommend founders engage with regulators at an incredibly early stage, put yourself in their position to try and understand their deliberations, and, above all, ask for guidance.
4) Speed. This might sound silly coming from a company that has worked on development for 15 years without any sales. But you need to have speed in the back of your mind, always. In agriculture, if you miss a growing season by just a few days, it will cost you at least six months. On the other side, running a test on a seedling instead of a tuber can gain you six months.
Since its establishment in 2007, Solynta has secured significant funding. Could you share your initial round experience, including the strategies you employed? Additionally, what strategies proved effective in successfully closing subsequent funding rounds?
The main asset is trust, especially with long development timelines. Trust is something that you need to build over time. Establishing rapport with potential investors before an ask is a valuable way to get them acquainted with the company. In addition, communication around risk and alternative approaches is critical. As said earlier, I recommend planning your funding round based on milestones you will achieve, and if you do not achieve them, you will not ask them to throw good money after bad. Furthermore, you can reduce the risk for investors by achieving industry recognition via forward sales or other investments.
You should also be as particular as possible about whom you accept as investors, which isn’t always easy. Valuation and terms are only part of the deal. Understand what else you need from investors, make that clear, and study their business model. Does it align with your business needs? How will this fit into subsequent funding rounds? Ask others for advice, especially those in your position who have lived to tell the tale.
Solynta’s mission is to use science and technology to improve the livelihoods of farmers. How does your company achieve this goal?
Solynta is using state-of-the-art science, technology, and the art of breeding to make better starting materials for farmers. Our HTPS (Hybrid True Potato Seeds) will supply the farmers with the cleanest and healthiest starting material they can get in the quantity and time frame they need. We will continue to improve these HTPS with every breeding generation. Doing so will ensure farmers receive improved varieties with better resistance optimized for their soil type and climate, including climate change. We will also deliver varieties with beneficial characteristics for consumers, like shorter cooking time or better storability. Farmers will spend far less on agrochemicals, produce more stable yields, and receive better profits from selling their potatoes.
This is essential in developing countries. Potatoes are not only a very nutritious vegetable but also one of the most profitable crops for a farmer (a cash crop). Potatoes are also a staple crop, supplying a substantial portion of the energy needed for a healthy diet. We support food and nutritional security and economic empowerment.
For example, Mlango Farms in Kenya stopped growing potatoes years ago due to a fungal disease called late blight. We provided them with our seeds, which have two natural resistance genes against late blight. Today, the plants are thriving, and the harvest is better than anticipated. Mlango Farms is growing and selling potatoes again for the first time in years. Of course, neighbouring farmers took notice and would like to access our seeds.
Of course, we do not work alone. We partner for scientific research with universities and businesses across the world including, for example, Incotec, Avebe, and PepsiCo, to develop better potato varieties. These are better for consumers, farmers, industry stakeholder and, last but not least, the planet.
How does Solynta ensure that the hybrid potato seeds developed are pest-resilient while maintaining their non-GMO status?
Hybrid breeding is elementary—we do something bees could also do. We take the pollen from a male plant with, for example, a known natural resistance against a specific disease and bring the pollen to the stigma of the female plant to fertilize the plant. However, we want to make particular crosses between a specific male and a specific female, so we do it manually instead of using a bee.
The resulting offspring are the seeds, which we grow into new plants. Next, we examine the plant carefully by looking at the specific DNA of the plant, just as the police would look at the DNA of a crime scene. We’re checking to see if these new plants carry the disease resistance from the father plant. Based on that information, breeders decide on the best next cross. We try to combine as many positive characteristics of the male and female plants as possible and limit the negative traits. The offspring should be better than their parents. When I explain this to my daughters, they say that concept also works in our family!
With food waste and destruction being major environmental issues, How do you see Solynta contributing to the global food supply and food security in the future?
Making new breeds robust is our top priority. By robust, I mean producing varieties specifically bred with certain growing conditions in mind. We aim to combine as many disease resistances as possible. With (changing) climate conditions in mind, our varieties should also be better suited to cope with excessive heat, droughts, or growing in higher-salinity soils. Some diseases, like late blight, can destroy a complete crop within days. Preventing this is where we can make a huge difference.
Potato processing is another instrumental waste stream. We can significantly reduce waste or improve conversion ratios for processors by focusing on the specific conversion characteristics of the potato. For example, we can optimize the shape of the potato for fries or chips or improve the dry matter.
As the CEO of Solynta, what are your primary goals and vision for the company in the coming years?
My main goal is to bring the team to its best level and hyper-scale commercial rollout.
After 15 years focusing on developing the first varieties, my vision for the next ten years is hyper-scaling our commercial efforts. Hyper-scaling means bringing our varieties to every place in the world, helping farmers produce more with less, and finding partners with local knowledge and boots on the ground to scale as quickly as possible.
Doing so is a matter of ambition and need. We must improve the food system as quickly as possible to combat climate change; just scaling is not fast enough for our planet. Potatoes will become the world’s most important food crop. This will also be driven by expanding and developing industry partnerships with seed and potato distributors, and large potato processors in fries, chips, protein, starch, and ingredients.
What aspects of the food-tech space are you particularly enthusiastic? Are there any upcoming technologies or developments that you’re excited about?
I am far from an expert in this field because it is incredibly diverse! But what I have seen recently is an increased interest in the sector. Gradually, investors are recognizing the mega trend, allocating more funds to agriculture. They’re also getting used to the uncertain timelines.
We urgently require not only more and better plant proteins to feed the world but plant ingredients to reduce petrochemical dependence as well, and both on an exceptionally large scale. While robotization is becoming more applicable to help farmers, technologies like gene-editing, AI and big data will also prove to be very beneficial here. AI for example will support a new understanding of multigene traits or proteins too complex for human researchers.
Food is an immense global system, so there are few quick fixes. We need to stop fighting fires and focus on preventing them sustainable.
What are the top three pieces of advice you would give to your younger self when embarking on the journey of running Solynta?
Build a top team with diverse expertise. You should have a bold and ambitious approach that scales with speed in mind. Be demanding but kind, and ensure your team feels appreciated.
Stay prepared by considering different scenarios and acting when something changes. Always work on your elevator pitch and be ready to share your idea anywhere.
Take good care of your health, both physically and mentally. Entrepreneurship is like a sport; you need to be “fit.” Mentally, it can be incredibly stressful and demanding at times. Every founder needs a place to wind down and catch a good night’s sleep. For me, that is home.