Root Architecture Company Cquesta Raises $5 million Seed Round
Cquesta has licensed technology from the Salk Institute to enable plants to develop deeper roots and express suberin, a carbon-dense, indigestible compound.
The technology is notable for two reasons:
Agronomic Upside: Deeper roots enable a plant to be able to access moisture and nutrients, nitrogen specifically, from deeper in the soil profile potentially increasing yield under drier or nitrogen-short conditions. There can also be some benefits from breaking up soil compaction, as well.
Carbon Sequestration Ease and Durability: Increasing root mass and increasing the depth where those roots are in the soil profile means the potential for increased durability and permanence. The “ease” factor stems from the potential for additionality without a significant systems change to farm operation— simply the farmer opting for a variety with the Root Trait technology in the seed.
In my conversation with CEO Michael Ott, he stated the aim is for yield and quality parity when the trait is used within a variety. Anytime a plant uses more resources to on anything that isn’t the fruit/grain (yield producing), there is a risk of a drag, which will be interesting to watch as this technology is worked on (more below).
That also indicates a key monetization driver of this technology is carbon related.
Carbon offsets and insets have remained challenging to monetize at scale because of measurement issues, permanence risk, and durability. Microsoft underscored this in one of their carbon whitepapers:
Forestry and soil carbon removal face sobering challenges in quality. Challenges with nature-based solutions underline the fact that removal is not a uniform commodity that can be compared easily across project types. They are also the most vulnerable to climate risks and human disruptions.
Said another way, one tillage event and years of storage can be undone, which makes for lower demand for farm-driven soil credits.
On top, often, the way to increase sequestration means farmers need to implement a systems change to their operation— no-till or cover crops, for example, which is complex to adjust to initially.
Working to overcome those challenges is what makes Cquesta unique:
Deeper roots mean the carbon storage is lower risk because a tillage event would not have the same permanence risk.
The trait would be embedded within a typical seed that farmers already use, meaning no adjustment to their efforts while still leading to additionality.
This gets at the Cquesta go-to-market and business model that CEO Michael Ott told me they are looking at:
Cquesta develops a commercially viable root architecture trait and then licenses the trait to a seed company, for example Corteva or Bayer.
The interesting part is that Cquesta wouldn’t charge the farmer. The goal would be to keep the cost of the seed the same (and ideally the yield), but have the farmer qualify for a carbon credit that gets them x number of dollars per acre for selecting that trait with their seed decision. Essentially, part of the seed selection process expands to include total revenue from beyond yield, as discussed in The Future of Seed.
Cquesta would then forward sell carbon credits and split the carbon revenue with the farmer, retailer, and seed manufacturer, with the farmer receiving the bulk of the offset.
This means Cquesta also needs to develop an MRV capability where not only can they understand the amount of incremental carbon stored per plant with their root trait and where in the soil that storage is occurring, but then how that aggregates up to a per acre basis, depending on the seeding rate and be able to verify that at scale in a way that would meet any certified protocol.
Cquesta has to be a trait company and MRV company at the same time.
Over the next 18 months, Cquesta has the ambition to establish an R&D program focusing on developing Root Architecture traits in target crops CoverCress, sorghum, canola, soybean, rice, and corn. The aim is to have something commercially viable in 3 years.
CoverCress and Canola are notable as early focuses.
For one, much of the work has been done on, as with most plant research, Arabidopsis thaliana or thale cress, which makes it closely related to other brassica family plants, CoverCress and Canola, potentially leading to faster commercial viability.
The other reason is that Bayer’s biofuel/cover crop efforts have been centered around commercializing CoverCress in mid-west US rotation. Additionally, Corteva’s biofuel efforts have been emphasized on winter canola.
The question then becomes, how much deeper will these roots go, and is it enough to make a difference on the carbon sequestration front? And is zero yield drag possible?
There are numerous studies on this subject, but a relatively recent study shows that, on average, most commonly grown crops in temperate climates do not have more than 50% of their root mass deeper than 18 cm or 7" inches (for US readers, there are approx. 2.5cm in 1”):
For canola and oilseed crops, the top 50% of root mass rarely gets below 10 cm or 4”.
Cquesta aims to drive the bulk of root mass deeper than 30 cm or 12” and ideally to 50cm (20”).
The depth is important, as this image illustrates, deeper tends to lead to longer soil storage and less ability for a farm practice to affect the permanence: