Sunflower Power

At Edison Agrosciences, sunflowers could hold the key to producing the first sustainable natural rubber made in the U.S.


Story By Cheryl Baehr
Visuals By R.J. Hartbeck

David Woodburn, CEO of St. Louis-based agtech startup Edison Agrosciences, vividly remembers the first time he saw a commercial sunflower field. It was years ago, during a family road trip through South Dakota, and he recalls being struck by the flowers, in all of their golden glory set against a bright blue sky, covering the gently rolling landscape as far as the eye could see — and so extensively, the scene seemed infinite. And yet despite how profound the experience was, it would be many years before he’d come to understand the plant’s full power — one that is poised to solve one of the most vexing problems in the U.S. supply chain. 

“There are over 2,000 plants that naturally produce rubber, and sunflowers are one of them,” Woodburn says. “From a density standpoint, they don’t produce the most per plant compared to others, but they are already widely planted on over a million and a half acres in the United States. Farmers already know how to grow them. We have a seed industry already dedicated to them. If we could just make them produce a little more natural rubber, we could leverage what we already have in place so they would be a commercially viable domestic source.”

Pictured from left to right, top to bottom: Edison Agrosciences sunflower plants growing in a research field; machinery in the field above the sunflowers; sunflowers growing in a greenhouse; sunflower plants during a different growth stage in a greenhouse at the Donald Danforth Plant Science Center. (First three images courtesy of Edison Agrosciences. Sunflower plant without blooms by R.J. Hartbeck)

Like Woodburn, Matt Crisp and Thomas Hohn have been in awe of the sunflower for many years — pretty much from the moment they learned of the plant’s potential as a game-changing resource. In 2013, the pair co-founded Edison Agrosciences with the goal of using biotechnology and plant genomics to increase the natural rubber that the sunflower already naturally produces, hoping that this increased yield would lead to a commercially viable solution for a problem that has plagued the domestic supply chain for as long as rubber became an important commodity. 

As Crisp explains, this is something that’s been on the minds of inventors not only in recent history, but all the way back to Thomas Edison (hence the company’s name), who began working on the project later in his career for Henry Ford. Ford was looking for a domestic source of natural rubber for his namesake automobile company, hoping to secure the product for his vehicles’ tires so that he didn’t have to rely on foreign producers, something that he felt placed the automobile industry in a vulnerable position with regard to supply chain disruptions and shifting geopolitical conditions. In Ford’s mind, if someone could figure out a way to produce natural rubber stateside, it would relieve the industry of the vulnerabilities posed by having a source outside of their control.

The concerns Ford had roughly a century ago have only grown in significance over the years. According to Edison Agrosciences’ research, the U.S. consumes approximately $2.2 billion in natural rubber per year for products that include everything from airplane tires to medical equipment to yoga mats. None of that supply comes from North America. In fact, 90 percent of the world’s rubber production happens in South and East Asia and is tied to a variety of environmental and human concerns such as deforestation, unsustainable production techniques, child and forced labor, and displacement of indigenous peoples.

David Woodburn, CEO of Edison Agrosciences, and researcher Dr. Santosh Kumar of the Donald Danforth Plant Science Center, stand among sunflower plants in a greenhouse at the Donald Danforth Plant Science Center.

“It’s the second-most imported commodity behind oil,” Crisp says. “Our original founding thesis [for Edison Agrosciences] was that we have this crop here; it’s not a weed or a bush but a crop that is already in production and that a farmer already knows how to grow that produces rubber. If we could breed this crop for this very valuable characteristic, we would be addressing all these risks.”

Crisp and Hohn knew that plant genomics and the biotech industry held the key to unlocking the sunflower’s potential as a domestic natural rubber source, and for the past decade, their company has been dedicated to finding solutions to increasing its yield — a quest that began in North Carolina’s research triangle, but moved to St. Louis in 2015 thanks to organizations like BioGenerator, a local biotech incubator that is helping to build the area’s innovation economy. Edison Agrosciences was one of BioGenerator’s portfolio companies, and after they helped Edison secure a grant, Crisp understood that the area was actually the best place for the company to grow and thrive.

“There are synergies to be had here with the (Donald) Danforth Plant Science Center, talent and early stage capital from BioGenerator, and other sources that have helped our company grow and maintain its research programs,” Crisp says. “There’s also been enough innovation here — we’re not only hiring folks from Monsanto anymore, but the ecosystem has really grown through investment. And it’s not just agtech, but food and others in the agricultural value chain who have made the decision to base their operations here. There’s been a critical mass that’s really been an asset here.”

Pictured from left to right, top to bottom: Sunflower powder is ground using a process similar to milled wheat; a box of different samples of sunflower powder; a closeup of the powder; a prototype of rubber made with sunflowers.

Woodburn echoes Crisp’s sentiment, noting that, in the seven years he’s been in the St. Louis area, he’s seen tremendous growth in its innovation ecosystem. He points to entities like BioGenerator, the Donald Danforth Plant Science Center, the Helix Center Biotech Incubator, and the 39 North Agtech Innovation District as helping to foster a collaborative community whereby a company’s individual success is seen as a win for everyone else in the industry. 

“We have had a couple of successes, like Benson Hill Biosystems (which Crisp also co-founded), and having those wins gives credence to the region but also provides some incentive or help to the smaller startups in the sense that they can aspire to be like these successes,” Woodburn says. “They are good examples for other startups in the area.”

Both Crisp and Woodburn see the St. Louis area as being an essential player in the agtech and biotech industries. They base their assessment not only on the infrastructure the area has already created but also on the fact that the region is a one-stop shop for startups looking to thrive. 

Edison Agrosciences sunflower plants growing inside a greenhouse at the Donald Danforth Plant Science Center.

“What we have is not just Bayer, one of the leading companies in seed and plant genetics, but also companies that buy agricultural commodities and process them like Bunge, and agricultural financing like Rabo — all of them have their headquarters here in the St. Louis area,” Woodburn says. “There are other places in the country that have major seed companies or large agriculture finance companies, but the fact that St. Louis has that entire supply chain represented here is unique.”

Edison Agrosciences is currently growing sunflowers in a greenhouse on the Donald Danforth Plant Science Center campus, and the company was accepted into the Wells Fargo Innovation Incubator. Crisp and Woodburn are banking on the fact that the St. Louis innovation ecosystem will help propel Edison Agrosciences past its early stage status — and so far, they have seen that evidence play out as the company edges closer to proof of concept. 

As Woodburn explains, their recent research successes show growth from being able to increase the sunflower’s rubber yield on a small scale to translating this to more meaningful quantities that they can use for samples to provide to companies eager to find a more stable source of such a valuable commodity. Woodburn feels that within the next 12 months, this increase in scale will lead to collaborations between Edison Agrosciences and industry players that will only accelerate the company’s quest to make domestic natural rubber a reality.

David Woodburn, CEO of Edison Agrosciences (pictured left), and researcher Dr. Santosh Kumar of the Donald Danforth Plant Science Center, stand among sunflower plants in a greenhouse at the Donald Danforth Plant Science Center.

“This is a very explainable and easy-to-understand concept —  just make the sunflowers, which already produce rubber in their leaves, produce a little more,” Woodburn says. “When you tell this to a plant scientist or a researcher, they say, ‘Oh sure; you should be able to do that. We’re not sure how long it will take, but this will work.’ From a probability of success standpoint, it is actually quite high for an agtech startup. 

“We have this opportunity to have a domestic supply of natural rubber, there is demand and interest from big companies in the industry,” Woodburn adds. “Yes, we should be able to make it, and yes, people want to buy it. All we have to do is execute and it will work.”

Greenhouses on the Donald Danforth Plant Science Center campus.

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