Seeding the Future: Margalit and Sherman’s BetterSeeds Journey from Agronomy to CRISPR Revolution

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Solutions for farmers to remain economically viable and grow climate-resilient crops are reaching a critical stage. Agricultural innovation is the essential ingredient for a sustainable and profitable future. BetterSeeds is addressing the pressing challenges of modern agriculture by utilizing CRISPR gene editing technology to develop seeds that are tolerant to the changes in climate and pests in vulnerable regions and at the same time improve yields and enhance nutritional content to boost the profitability of farmers and drive economic growth in the agricultural sector.

BetterSeeds: at the forefront of agricultural innovation

BetterSeeds co-founders, Ido Margalit and Dr. Tal Sherman are pioneering an approach to genetic engineering that holds significant promise for addressing the challenges of modern agriculture and making a positive impact on a global scale.

Margalit’s background is deeply rooted in the life science industry. A degree in agronomy from the prestigious Hebrew University (a top 80 global university), followed by a master’s in business administration from New York University’s Polytechnic School of Engineering, Margalit’s academic journey laid the foundation for a 20 plus year journey in the life science industry.

Margalit’s professional trajectory is a blend of research acumen and entrepreneurial spirit. From his early days as a researcher in biotech companies to his role as the co-founder and CEO of Infigo Diagnostics, Margalit honed his expertise. His tenure at Syngenta further solidified his position as a leader in agricultural innovation, where he played a pivotal role in business development and technology scouting.

BetterSeeds beginnings

That scouting was the impetus for BetterSeeds. “Tal (Dr. Tal Sherman) and I became acquainted with CRISPR technology very early on. CRISPR technology in itself was discovered in 2012. We started looking for solutions for Syngenta around gene editing, and we understood around that time that CRISPR was going to be the next revolution in developing new and better seeds for the future. We quickly realized conventional breeding is out and CRISPR is in.”

Syngenta was then purchased by ChemChina, and one of the first things they did was shut down the Israeli site as part of a streamlining process to make it more profitable. “Tal and I knew that this was our opportunity to open our own genetics and seed company based entirely on CRISPR. The goal was to develop traits that enabled plants to cope with environmental stresses. And that’s how BetterSeeds came to be.”

Margalit’s partnership with co-founder Dr. Tal Sherman, a fellow agronomist and industry veteran, has been essential to the development and success of BetterSeeds. Margalit shares, “He did his doctorate in plant sciences in Tel Aviv University in their plant science department. He was hired right after by Syngenta to lead abiotic stress projects. Abiotic stress means anything that is related to climate change, including heat, cold, salinity and drought, any stress that is not related to disease or pests. We co-chaired the local technology scouting team, and we discovered the future of CRISPR together.”

Sherman’s expertise in plant research and project management, honed during his tenure at Syngenta, complements Margalit’s entrepreneurial vision. “Tal’s project management, meaning not only developing the most efficient research activity, but also how to find the correct partners, has been so important for BetterSeeds. Because it’s not just about doing the research, it’s actually about combining all the different resources, internal and external, to get the job done. At the beginning Tal led our R&D, and his “out of the box” thinking and creativity has helped us overcome a lot of hurdles we encountered. Today Tal is the CTO, and uses his experience from the work that we did at Syngenta, for sourcing technologies that we need to complement our solutions and licensing them for BetterSeeds.”

BetterSeeds’ early days and challenges

The early days of BetterSeeds were marked with some formidable challenges, particularly in securing funding and navigating the early use of CRISPR technology. However, Margalit’s prior entrepreneurial endeavors taught him some valuable lessons.

“This is my second time as a founder, so I tried not to repeat the mistakes I made as a founder at the beginning. And those mistakes were centered around two points, who the investors are and my team. We very carefully picked the team that includes Dr. Shira Corem, our VP of R&D who did her post doc on applying CRISPR on tomatoes at the world-renowned Volcani Plant research Institute. It’s a team we completely trust; we all work on the same brainwave. As for the investors, we selected investors that trust us, and we trust them. The combination of the two have allowed us to overcome a lot of hurdles that we have faced, financially, technologically, anything that a startup faces such as the pandemic and the financial crisis.”

Working for such a huge conglomerate as Syngenta also taught him some “goods and bads” as well. “The ‘good’ is that ‘cash is king.’ We are striving to bring commercial products that will bring a lot of money and a lot of profitability. I understand what the fuel is in the engine of the company. I’m not a technological founder developing cool innovations that I can’t sell. I’m first and foremost looking for products that we know that the market wants. And this is my main goal.”

The second thing he learned was how to operate very efficiently and not to fall for the “not invented here” syndrome. “One of the ‘bad’ parts of working for such a huge organization, I saw how resources in time and money are spent so needlessly. Instead of doing things frugally, in a short time and bringing solutions already developed outside the organizations, they were doing it expensively, slowly and mostly internally. The ‘good’ is that I understand we have to work really quickly. We’re competing with Syngenta and other companies on the same customers, on the same technologies, but BetterSeeds is doing it much quicker and much more efficiently being a nimble startup.”

The benefits of being in Israel

Margalit highlights the unique advantages of operating in Israel’s entrepreneurial ecosystem, with its abundant startup culture, expertise in agricultural entrepreneurship and collaborative spirit among industry stakeholders. The proximity and accessibility within Israel’s tight-knit community has helped facilitate rapid innovation and knowledge-sharing, helping Margalit and Sherman propel BetterSeeds towards its goals.

“One of our first advisors is Professor Haim Rabinowich, a world renowned scientist, plant geneticist. He’s a world thought leader in the field. He’s the guy who developed the cherry tomato almost 50 years ago. I knew him a little, but I said, ‘We’re opening this new company. Would you be our advisor?’ And he’s been with us from day one, assisting us. He comes out to our greenhouses; he comes out to our team meetings, anything. We might not have that if we weren’t located in Israel. The same goes to our other advisors.”

Margalit and Sherman’s BetterSeeds is set-up to play a crucial role in addressing the challenges facing modern agriculture by leveraging cutting-edge technology to develop crops that are more resilient, productive and sustainable. Through its innovative approach to genetic engineering, the company has the potential to make a lasting impact on the global agricultural landscape.

Find out more about BetterSeeds CRISPR innovations.

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