Meet Trace Genomics, The "23andMe" Of Soil

For the founders of Trace Genomics, strawberries are the low-hanging fruit.

Photo: Flickr user U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Jennifer Aldridge

Photo: Flickr user U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Jennifer Aldridge

The company's cofounders, Diane Wu and Poornima Parameswaran, are borrowing 23andMe's model and applying it to agriculture. For $199, growers—and the suppliers that sell fertilizers and seeds to them—can collect a sample of soil from their crops' roots using a special kit and send it back to Trace's lab for analysis. The company will then share the results of its pathogen panel, which tests the sample for tiny organisms like bacteria, viruses, and fungi that are associated with plant blight. For now, the offering is limited to some 30 diseases affecting strawberries and lettuce.

I met with the pair in late July over lunch in Dogpatch, a part-industrial, part-residential neighborhood in San Francisco that is home to a growing number of biotech startups. We ordered salads before jumping into a discussion about the various microbial diseases that affect our fruit and vegetable supply.

"Think of soil as the immune system for crops," says Parameswaran, a molecular biologist by training, between bites of a pear and butter lettuce salad. "And yet we know so little about it."

Wu and Parameswaran are not the only ones pitching genomics tools to growers and suppliers, but they believe they have an edge. The pair, who met at the lab run by Nobel Prize-winning biologist Andrew Fire, say they have developed a novel way to clean up and extract information from dirty samples like soil. Their secret sauce isn't just their team's scientific knowledge, but their expertise in advanced computing disciplines like machine learning (Wu previously worked as a software developer on Palantir's machine learning team).

Their goal isn't just to deliver insights to farmers, but information they can act on. It's still early days, but Trace says it is helping its customers determine how best to treat the soil and mitigate disease, as well as the crops that are the best fit for the soil. Today, it is primarily used for chemical interventions, like finding the optimal combination of fertilizers.

Read the whole story at Fast Company