True to the cause


10 August 2023
Co-founder of breeding company shares his journey and future goals.

HEIN Kruyt, Co-founder & CEO of Dutch breeder Solynta, was recently interviewed by EU Startups where he discussed enabling the development of hybrid true potato seeds which offer farmers a non-GMO, pest-resilient, reliable, and sustainable potato option. 

Hein shared the challenges Solynta faced while establishing and strengthening its position and how these were overcome while outlining its future strategies for securing significant funding.

Discussing his entrepreneurial journey and how he came to co-found Solynta, Hein said: "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 that if we could enable hybrid breeding in potatoes and provide the world with true potato seeds, the growth potential would be unlimited." 

He said achieving successful hybrid potato breeding was the first challenge. After recruiting a new R&D director, the company began with five research projects, of which four were unsuccessful. Following a company acquisition, he felt the new owners were not interested in funding the work so an independent potato project (with stakeholder approval) was launched. 

"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," he said. 

He said scientific work such as Solynta’s is incredibly relevant to today’s world. 

"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.

"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. 

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"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."

Potato breeding has its own challenges, he added. 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 (non-GMO) technology enables researchers to combine beneficial traits into existing hybrid varieties, to provide resistance against pest and diseases and tolerance to climate factors like heat, drought, and salinity, he said, which will make 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." 

Over the next six years, the company hopes 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," he said.

One of the main challenges he has faced in his career journey was balancing different viewpoints. "Because we looked at potatoes through the lens of a tomato breeder instead of a potato breeder, we could recognise 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," said Hein. 

Other challenges have been considering different scenarios for funding and achieving regulatory approval.

"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. 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." 

Source: EU Startups