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Genetics startup Napigen raises nearly $8M

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Cheryl Caster, director of product development at Napigen, prepares tissue for introduction of new DNA. | DBT PHOTO BY ERIC CROSSAN

WILMINGTON – Napigen, an agricultural technology and genetics startup firm, has raised $7.85 million in its initial seed funding round, officials announced this week.

Co-founded in 2016 and led by CEO Hajime Sakai, a former DuPont scientist, Napigen is based at the Delaware Innovation Space at the DuPont Experimental Station in Alapocas. The firm has been working to “edit” out genetic imperfections in wheat and rice using a proprietary technology that targets mitochondria, an organelle that is critical to the growth of cells.

“Mitochondrial DNA wasn’t really the target of any existing technologies, so we were probably the first to do generalized gene editing of mitochondrial DNA of plants,” Sakai told Delaware Business Times.

Napigen’s work differs from classic genetically modified organisms, or GMOs, because it actually edits the DNA of the host cell for improvements, rather than introducing DNA of a different organism to improve yields or pest resistance, among other traits.

“We try to really improve the existing genes of those crop plants,” he said, noting that either approach has benefits.

Hijame Sakai | PHOTO COURTESY OF NAPIGEN

Napigen’s approach is quite beneficial in creating male plant species, which are necessary to fertilize the food-producing female plants and create sought-after hybrid plants, Sakai noted. The success of Napigen’s technology could result in larger crop yields from existing farmland, reducing the risk of deforestation and food scarcity, especially as the war in the Ukraine has exposed the fragility of global food production.

“Having more self-sufficiency in food production in each country will be a very important thing to think about,” Sakai said.

Sakai said that Napigen aims to be able to commercialize its work with a partner in about two years. The $7.85 million seed funding will allow it to add more employees and advance its research and test fields.

Leading the outside investment in Napigen was Boston-based investment firm Grantham Foundation, which seeks to support efforts that improve global environmental health, and Boston-based RA Capital Management, a venture capital firm that targets the health care and life science industries. Also participating were Breakout Labs/Thiel Foundation, a San Francisco-based investment firm for early-stage scientific research; Thrive SVG Ventures, a California-based investment firm for agtech; MarsBio, a Los Angeles-based investment firm for emerging biotech; and the United Mitochondrial Disease Foundation.

That last organization is interested in the potential for Napigen’s technology in the health care industry, as it relies on CRISPR to edit genes in mitochondria and has successfully completed tests in yeast and algae. One day, the technology short for “clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats” could help correct genetic diseases in humans.

“The technology is very simple, and we think it’s fairly universal so it’s not just useful for plants, but also microbes and animals, including humans,” Sakai said. “We are very interested in testing the capability of the technology to edit human mitochondrial DNA. That’s what we are trying to do right now. Once we show it’s possible, I think that there will be quite a few opportunities there.”

Napigen has one researcher working on human research, who is partially supported by a $225,000 Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) grant from the National Institutes of Health.

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