Startup NanoBio Designs seeks to simplify genetic testing
A local small business is hoping to deploy technology in the coming years that could help seed producers and distributors more quickly determine the genetic makeup of their products.
NanoBio Designs Inc., which has its offices at 16 Tech innovation district and lab space at Purdue University’s Bindley Bioscience Center in West Lafayette, is still in the early stages of developing its ExpresSeed platform. The technology operates by using microparticles to detect whether certain DNA signatures, like genetic modifications, are present—and at what levels—within harvested grains and other row crops.
That’s important to ensure buyers are selling and customers are acquiring the precise seed or grain they intend to be trading.
Technology to identify specific types of seeds and grains already exists through polymerase chain reaction testing, commonly called PCR, which is the same technology used to test for coronavirus. But PCR devices can operate only in sterile, lab-like environments, and the tests often have multi-day turnaround times. In addition, the results can be inconsistent when testing pushes beyond simple DNA sequence examination.
Some on-site testing capabilities exist, as well, but the technology relies on reading proteins rather than actual DNA. And those food proteins can be influenced by numerous factors, including climate conditions and the location from which a product originates.
NanoBio Designs intends to make genetic testing technology—which is more accurate—readily available to seed companies and grain distributors.
“Protein tests have their place, but it’s not a genetic test,” said Ryan Skaar, co-founder and chief operating officer of NanoBio Designs. “If we can bring a genetic test on-site, where the PCR technologies are not able to go, that’s a big value-add [for distributors], because of the accuracy and sensitivity that can be provided for detecting traits
NanoBio launched in Iowa in 2017 and moved to Indianapolis in 2021. Last year, it received the Innovative Small Business of the Year award from the Indiana Small Business Development Center. The company has four employees.
By having on-site technology to conduct testing, Skaar said, distributors can verify before sale that a grain or seed supply is not contaminated. That can include ensuring specific types of grains, such as those grown for biofuels or pharmaceutical uses, aren’t mixed with those grown for consumer products like corn chips, oils
Grain testing generally requires grinding and extraction, and that’s the case with ExpresSeed as well. But rather than shipping that mixture off for testing, distributors using ExpresSeed would instead place it into a cartridge that goes in a tabletop device able to read DNA sequences in microparticles.
“We don’t want distributors to have to wait three days to get a genetic result of their own,” he said. “We want them to be able to test every single truckload and know exactly the composition, so they can put it into a bin, put it on a rail car and send it to where they need it to go.”
NanoBio already has a patent pending on the biochemistry components of its technology. It expects to pursue additional patents on the physical items—the testing devices and associated cartridges, which are now in the prototyping stage—in the coming months.
The technology should be able to test DNA in corn and soybeans from the outset, but the company hopes to expand into other areas of agriculture and health. Skaar said NanoBio already has informal relationships with Atlanta, Indiana-based Beck’s Hybrids and Iowa-based Kent Corp., but it hopes to begin official pilot programs with hybrid seed distributors and grain and feed operators by mid-2024.
The effort to ramp up production and launch comes as governments worldwide continue to roll out regulatory language tied to genetically modified organisms, or GMOs. In the United States, the Environmental Protection Agency, the Food and Drug Administration and the Department of Agriculture have oversight of the distribution of GMOs. The European Union also has strict rules on the production and mingling of GMO and non-GMO food products.
“From the agriculture and bioscience industry perspective, genetic modifications are only going to continue to work their way into the food, fuel and pharmaceutical supply chain,” Skaar said. “Being able to track those more efficiently is key to their adoptions—particularly if we want to meet these goals of feeding more people more cost-effectively and nutritiously. Having the technologies in place at these on-site locations to facilitate their distribution for their intended purposes is really important.”
Skaar said another advantage is that the company’s technology won’t occupy as large a physical footprint as is needed for PCR testing. Instead, NanoBio Design is aiming to “get to a point to where you could run it from the back of the pickup truck if you really wanted to.”
For now, though, the company is still working to get off the ground, he acknowledged. It has not yet turned a profit and is continuing to look for angel investors and venture capital firms to finance its growth.
Editor’s note: This article is part of the IBJ’s 2023 Innovation Issue, focusing on Farm, Food and Tech. To read more articles from this year’s issue, click here.