Israeli agritech IPO could be first of a controversial wave

Evogene offering may mark the beginning of a new tech era for Israel, as genetically modified foods become more prominent

Former president Shimon Peres examines experimental plants produced by the Israeli agritech firm Evogene, on a visit to the company's headquarters, July 15, 2013. (Courtesy)
Former president Shimon Peres examines experimental plants produced by the Israeli agritech firm Evogene, on a visit to the company's headquarters, July 15, 2013. (Courtesy)

As IPOs go, the $86 million public offering that Israel’s Evogene presented to US investors Thursday wasn’t particularly big, but it could be the beginning of the next big trend, according to experts. To Israel’s prowess in networking, social media, mobile technology, and others, add agricultural technology – arguably the most important technology of all.

The initial offering was for 5 million shares on the New York Stock Exchange (under the symbol EVGN), priced at $14.75 per share. By the end of its first trading day, the stock had gained $1.30, or 8.8%, to close at $16.05, having gone as high as $18.10.

Credit Suisse Securities and Deutsche Bank Securities are acting as joint book-running managers for the offering, and Oppenheimer & Co. and Piper Jaffray & Co. are acting as co- managers. The company already has a customer for its first 813,560 shares – US agritech giant Monsanto, which is in the same business as Evogene, and has worked with the company on a number of projects.

That business – genetic modification of plants and crops (GM) — has generated a great deal of controversy in recent years. Those opposed to the introduction of genetically modified organisms (GMO) into the agricultural system say they recognize that more food is going to be needed as the years go by. But “while scientific progress on molecular biology has a great potential to increase our understanding of nature and provide new medical tools, it should not be used as justification to turn the environment into a giant genetic experiment by commercial interests,” according to GreenPeace, a strong opponent of GM.

Critics point to numerous studies that they claim provide evidence that genetically modified crops are damaging, with some scientists saying that the few studies that have been conducted show clearly that many of the benefits of GM touted by its supporters have not come to fruition, and that in fact GM has its own set of major problems. Other scientists disagree, claiming that the studies opponents cite are inconclusive, and that GM is perfectly fine.

GM advocates say that the world really has no choice: As the population continues to grow – it is likely to reach 9 billion by 2050 – genetic engineering is going to be necessary in order to ensure that the there is enough food for everyone.

In a recent interview, Rurik Halaby, the CEO of New York-based AgriCapital, one of the largest mergers and acquisition firms working in the agritech space, said that “the demand for food will double by 2050. Fifty years ago, one hectare of land fed one person for a year. By 2050, we will have to increase that fivefold, so that a hectare feeds five people. Today the production of food depends a great deal on technology” — including genetic modification.

Evogene clearly falls into that latter category. “In order to ensure adequate supplies of food, feed and fuel, we face the challenging task of producing more output with reduced inputs,” according to the company. “Additional challenges include preserving existing resources by reducing air, water and land pollution, as well as coping with climate changes. Improving plant performance so as to increase crop yield, bolster resistance to climate changes and reduce water requirements is the foremost solution for coping with these daunting challenges. Plant genomics offer a promising opportunity to improve plants.”

For over a decade, said Ido Dor, Evogene’s director of business development, the company has been studying and analyzing plant genes, working to isolate the hardiest ones and developing ways to use their characteristics to improve the hardiness of other plants. “We are a world leader in the area of plant genomics, which we use for plant innovation,” Dor said on a recent tour of Evogene’s Rehovot-area facilities. “We use big data analysis, prediction and validation techniques to isolate the natural-growing genes that can be transferred between plant species, to improve output.”

The information on plant growth is gathered by placing sensors in fields, growing plants in labs and other controlled settings, and examining growing plants from the molecular level up to gather the data that holds the answers on why one species is more resistant to drought or to particular kinds of insects than others, said Dor. Evogene has developed genes for crops such as wheat, corn, rice, and soybeans that improve yields, allow crops to be grown with less water, make plants more resistant to various diseases, and so on.

This is the essence of what is called “genetic engineering,” Dor said. “There has definitely been a backlash, but the market is growing, and there is a great financial opportunity here.” One of the places where that backlash has been most pronounced has been in Europe, which has banned many varieties of genetically-modified crops. “In the end things will balance out, because the need is still there, and will continue to grow,” he said.

At this time, almost no genetically modified crops are used in products that are meant for direct human consumption (there is no commercial production of GM wheat, for example), but there is plenty of GM produce used in manufactured foods and animal feed – and at this point, GM is almost impossible to avoid, said Dor. While not all the returns are in yet, he said, “GM certainly better than consuming food that has been chemically modified for better yields.”

Meanwhile, Evogene’s business has continued to grow apace. Just last month Evogene extended its two year old agreement with Dupont Pioneer, expanding it to develop soybean varieties displaying resistant to Asian Soybean Rust (ASR). Also in October, Evogene and Monsanto announced the extension of their R&D collaboration deal, first signed in 2008. The original arrangement, which will be continued, focused on identifying key plant genes related to yield, environmental stress and fertilizer utilization in corn, soybean, cotton and canola, and the research will now be extended to corn, specifically to discover genes to provide resistance to Stalk Rot disease in corn.

Besides Dupont Pioneer and Monsanto, Evogene has partnerships and deals with all the other agritech giants in the U.S., Asia, and Europe, including Syngenta, Biogemma, Bayer, Rasi, and others.

Slowly but surely, Israel is gaining a name in the world as an agritech center. Renowned for its water and waste management technology, it’s just a matter of time until word gets out about agritech innovation in Israel, said Nitza Kardish, the CEO of Trendlines Agtech-Mofet. Israel, she said, ha over 200 research groups developing great agricultural technology, but has not yet been able to commercialize and market them, as it has in other tech areas.

Seeing this, The Trendlines Group, a venture capital fund that works with early stage Israeli start-ups, opened an incubator specifically for agricultural technology companies, said Kardish. Among the companies and technologies that have passed through the TrendlinesAgtech incubator are SolChip, which uses solar energy to power sensors that keep track of livestock; EdenShield, a start-up that uses natural herbs to more effectively prevent insect infestation of plants; and MiRobot a company with a better, cheaper way to milk cows.

The Evogene IPO could have an a major impact on these and other agritech start-ups, said Kardish. “Evogene is such a great example of Israeli ‘Ag Valley,’ our agricultural version of ‘Silicon Valley.’ Evogene started out as a small company with a combination of plant genetics science and hi-tech software, and now it is providing cutting edge solutions for all the big industry players worldwide. Although GMO is considered a controversial topic, I believe that to feed the growing population we’ll have to use methods that increase crop productivity, and this is what GM eventually does,” Kardish said.

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