Innovation Saskatchewan is responsible for implementing the province’s innovation priorities and helping grow Saskatchewan’s tech sector. Effective April 2022, this includes operation of the Innovation Place technology parks in Saskatoon and Regina.

NRGene is on the Cutting Edge of Agricultural Innovation

Interview with Head of Genomics Masood Rizvi

What is the future of Ag Tech in Saskatchewan? Well, that’s a big question that we don’t quite know the answer to yet, but what we do know is there are many agricultural companies and research facilities in Saskatchewan primed and ready to make a big impact. One such company is NRGene, one of our newest tenants at Innovation Place in Saskatoon. NRGene is a genomics AI company that provides accurate and complete genetic information to the breeding community and has already had a huge impact in the Ag Tech world, completing over 250 projects in a variety of areas, including food, cannabis, rubber and more.

We spoke with Masood Rizvi, Head of Genomics at NRGene Canada, and the NRGene team about why Saskatchewan is a powerhouse for Ag Tech, the positive impacts of genomic plant breeding and why “Smart Plants” are the wave of the future.

Let’s start off with a bit about NRGene. Tell us about the company and its mission.

NRGene is a genomics AI company that conducts genomic research and develops software analytical solutions providing the breeding community with accurate and complete genetic information. These analytical tools assist our partners to develop elite species with better disease resistance, higher yielding crops and other enhanced traits through molecular breeding processes.

NRGene was founded 10 years ago, following an understanding that a profound and accurate genetic information can significantly enhance natural breeding processes. It was founded at the time when researchers started to perform full sequencing of animal and plant genomes and NRGene was finding ways to decode all the genetic content and correlations between them and plant's performance, in order to provide breeders with deep understanding of their plants.

NRGene did this for many crops and other organisms and its findings were widely utilized. As more species were researched, NRGene’s solutions were advanced and developed to be able to decipher the largest and most complex genomes. This led to scientific publications of the first ever high-quality genomes of key crops such as wheat, potato, oat, rye and more.

NRGene’s highly accurate genomes brought top seed companies to partner with the company and to utilize its computational AI tools in their breeding programs. This was a great milestone for NRGene as its technology proved valuable to every company in the industry.

Now, NRGene has completed more than 250 projects for over 100 customers, among them are companies from different verticals, such as agriculture, food, beverages, oil, paper, rubber, cannabis and more.

In May 2020, NRGene expanded its operations and opened an office in Saskatchewan — Innovation Place in Saskatoon to be more specific! Why was Saskatchewan’s tech sector the right fit for NRGene?

We know that Saskatchewan is popularly known as the “Land of living skies” due to its sky space vivid colours, but this is not the only reason why the province is attracting companies from all over the world. Saskatchewan is also the world’s largest exporter of peas, lentils, durum wheat, canola, flax and oats and have exported about 12.9b of Agriculture products in 2019.

Saskatchewan’s central location also makes it easier to do business throughout Canada and it has extensive research infrastructure, with a focus on agriculture and agricultural biotechnology. These are just a few key drivers for NRGene Canada to start its operation in Saskatchewan.

NRGene saw great opportunities in Saskatchewan for it being a major exporter of some of the world’s leading crops and having an extensive research infrastructure, focused on agricultural innovation. NRGene already has many strong relationships in Saskatchewan working closely both with Saskatchewan’s academic, government and commercial entities. This all started in 2015, when Innovation Saskatchewan, a tenant at Innovation Place in Saskatoon, first met with NRGene’s team at a workshop, as they have been involved in Saskatchewan’s wheat genome project demonstrating how advanced genomics technology can boost wheat research.

Since then, NRGene has generated multiple successful collaborations in Saskatchewan with the University of Saskatchewan, Agriculture & Agri-Food Canada and additional local commercial companies and academia. These collaborations cover multiple crops, including bread wheat, durum wheat, canola, legumes, mustard, flax, cannabis and more.

NRGene supports agricultural research and breeding, recently achieving further advances with the commercialization of guayule, an alternative to natural rubber, among other advances. For those of us unfamiliar with improved breeding of crop plants and farm animals, can you briefly explain what it is?

The goal of any breeding program is to increase the efficiency and improve the quality of plant or animal production. It’s important to understand that any new variety is a new genetic combination that contains the best genes from all the parental generations of that specific plant. It is extremely hard to guess the best combination without knowing the full genetic information of all the parents and their field performance.

Traditionally, the breeding process mostly relied on visual scanning and phenotypic measurements of all the plants in the field and the selection of the best plants. These measurements, of course, were very limited to the specific conditions and traits you can detect with your eyes.

With the introduction of advanced genomics tools, the breeding processes became undoubtedly more accurate and with significantly shorter time cycles. When you have accurate genetic data, you can initially pick the best fitting plants (e.g., with resistance to specific insect, drought or high yield) and sow them in the field, knowing that the genetic combination is exactly as required by the farmer and therefore accurately predict the result at the end of the growing season.

What are some positive impacts of improved genomic breeding?

Optimized molecular breeding ensures that the most successful plants are chosen as the foundations of breeding cycles and prevents “unqualified” plants from making it to the fields. This saves breeders a lot of time and trials because the predictions, that are based on molecular tools and genetic information, are significantly more accurate.

The time to market decreases and the ability to further the best varieties development increases. The enhanced ability to create elite species with better disease resistance, higher yield crops and other desired traits has a direct influence on the product's quality, quantity and price and therefore on the whole agricultural value chain.

NRGene does a lot of work with cannabis and hemp plants. Why is the cannabis industry important for the Ag Tech sector?

The Ag Tech sector has a keen interest in cannabis as the market begins to open up due to legalization and broadening research connected to health, pharma and cancer research. The industry is young, but it is growing rapidly and many of the cannabis market’s leaders are based in Canada. Being relatively under researched, there is a lot of potential for genomics discoveries in the cannabis plant.

The major challenge the Ag Tech and the cannabis breeding industry faces relates to the plant’s extreme heterozygosity, which means a highly complicated genome to work with and to analyze. NRGene has a successful history and an extensive experience with complex genomes of other crops (e.g., wheat and strawberry) and this is what gives NRGene’s team an advantage while working on cannabis projects.

Just recently NRGene announced a successful mapping of new cannabis traits, among them the autoflower trait — a highly desired in the cannabis and hemp industry.

The COVID-19 pandemic has had some profound effects on multiple industries. What challenges has it presented for NRGene and its work?

The pandemic took NRGene, as everyone else, by surprise. As skies continued to shut down, we were faced with challenges of communication, and mainly the lack of it. However, as all our technology is based on the cloud and requires only computers and Internet connection, we were able to overcome the physical barriers disconnecting us from our customers and partners and to continue our work uninterrupted.

Moreover, while some of our clients were prevented from getting out into the fields and performing actual trials, we were able to advance their projects and continue their research through computational predictions.

Eventually, 2020 was a big year for us: we opened NRGene Canada, which is still expanding. We’ve also initiated an IPO process in the Tel Aviv Stock Exchange that was successfully completed right at the beginning of 2021.

Has the pandemic created any opportunities for innovative solutions in regards to crop production?

There is a stronger focus on food security now. As many lives were affected during the pandemic and physical borders closed, there was an arose of awareness to support research towards accelerating more productive food supply as well as securing local agricultural resources.

One of our biggest challenges this year was maintaining steady pipelines even when lockdowns and closures were in effect. NRGene was able to look at this as an opportunity as all our technology is software and cloud based and we can work remotely. As our customers safely remained in their houses their productions and pipelines continued to advance as we continued our efforts online. No time was wasted, and our teams were flexible and ready to accommodate our partners’ needs.

What does the future hold for NRGene in Saskatchewan? Are there specific projects or plans in the works?

The future of agriculture will need to focus on making “Smart Plants” instead of just superior yield. Smart plants sense the environmental change and adapt towards this change — they will become the new thrust for the future.

NRGene will utilize its cutting-edge technology to deploy the innovation for genomic breeding in all important Canadian crops. Our main focus will be toward providing low-cost genotyping with innovative SNP panels that will employ the resources of nucleotide diversity in each crop to create optimal sets of informative genome wide markers. This will help seed industries to deploy genomic solutions/molecular breeding with very high efficiency and efficacy.

With the world-class agriculture research cluster in Saskatoon, we see this place as natural location for NRGene to expand its operations. With the future investment and growth, NRGene will recruit more skilled Ag Tech professionals for our Saskatoon facility at Innovation place. Our focus will be primarily for innovation, diversity and inclusion.

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- March 1, 2021