An Interview with Keith Thompson – Chair of NK:IO
Keith Thompson is the current chair of biotech start-up NK:IO. He’s also chair of...read more
Founded by Gilad Gershon and Dr Eyal Maori, Tropic Biosciences uses cutting-edge technologies to develop tropical crop varieties with enhanced nutritional benefits, improved cultivation efficiencies, and, importantly, greater sustainability. With COP26 underway, and the need to reduce agriculture’s environmental impact becoming increasingly urgent, our attention turns to companies developing the novel technologies that promise greener solutions to feeding our growing population.
Growing up in Israel, I joined the Israeli Navy at 18 and served as a Ship Commander. My career then shifted towards science at Tel Aviv University where I studied Industrial Engineering. I obtained an MBA from the UCLA Anderson School of Management and started a career in private equity and venture capital investment in the field of food and agriculture. Innovations in some sectors can feel detached from everyday life, but with agriculture, everyone can relate to the importance of feeding the global population. I’ve also developed a passion for technology and its critical role in overcoming the challenges we face today.
In my early career I had the privilege to work with some fantastic investors and companies, and this gave me the incentive to build a new company which, in its essence, would take the most advanced technologies, such as CRISPR and gene editing, but deploy them in crucial areas with an unmet need for innovation. So much of our food comes from tropical agriculture, but most agricultural innovations have been developed for areas such as the Americas and Europe. So, with Dr Eyal Maori, I began Tropic Biosciences at Norwich Research Park in 2016. We’re incredibly proud of the work we do: five years on we have a great team of over 110 professionals and we’re building to become a leading global company.
Moving forward but maintaining focus
We’ve come a long way since we started but we’ve maintained our vision throughout. The business has grown to include more core crops, beginning with coffee in 2016, adding bananas in 2017 and rice in 2020. We were early movers in establishing innovations to support tropical agriculture, and, initially to our surprise, the technologies we’ve developed are also being adopted by other companies to solve problems in a wide range of food production sectors (porcine, poultry, tomatoes, potatoes & sugar beet), with application for human therapeutics on the horizon.
Naturally, there are challenges in scaling up a business from a start-up to a global company – this requires extensive evolution of culture and processes. But, being based in the UK, we’ve been able to recruit phenomenal talent and worked hard to build a supportive infrastructure around our team.
A pivotal moment for agriculture
Globally, we’ve reached an understanding that climate change is happening. However, there’s still a lack of appreciation of the huge impact on food security. This year, food prices have risen globally by over 30% – this might not be so noticeable in the western world where a relatively small proportion of our income is spent on food, but in areas such as Latin America, Africa and South East Asia, the effects are dire.
We’re seeing increased freak weather phenomena and droughts as well as a huge rise in agricultural diseases: viruses, pests and fungi are all increasing with warming climates and intensive monocultures.
Our work at Tropic Biosciences is crucial to overcome these challenges. We take crops that are vital to the most affected regions and evolve them to be more capable of dealing with the changing environment. We enhance climate tolerance, disease resistance and yield, which reduces wastage and emissions downstream. A recent early analysis shows our future banana product will be able to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by over 700kg per tonne of fruit through limiting waste in transportation and chemical use. With 22.6 million tonnes of bananas exported each year, this impact is huge.
The right investor
The support we’ve had from UKI2S has been incredibly important. In some ways, very early-stage funding can be the hardest to secure because you’re selling a vision and ambition. The UK has some fantastic funding mechanisms but obtaining institutional money to support groups with tremendous ambition is competitive. UKI2S gave us the kickstart to set us on the right course.
COP26 brings the climate crisis into focus
As COP26 takes place in Glasgow, the eyes of the world are being opened to climate change. Unfortunately, this is later than ideal, but our team at Tropic Biosciences are optimists. Yes, there are many challenges that cannot be avoided, but we do have the tools, innovations and ambition to truly make the world a better place.