Cleantech Startups 101 – Chris Tuttle, Founder of Cotyledon Consulting
As part of our ongoing “Cleantech Startups 101” blog series, this week we interviewed Chris Tuttle. Chris is a University of Victoria biology graduate and she is the co-founder of Cotyledon Consulting, which has prototyped and is developing a biological technology that can precisely target specific weed species without harming neighbouring crops, native plants or animals.
What exactly is your product?
It’s a genetic technology that targets genes that are unique to a specific weed. It effectively tricks the plant into killing itself, so the plant dies and doesn’t set seed. Right now we’re focused on defeating Herbicide resistant Water hemp and Palmer amaranth, both are really aggressive plants that are causing massive problems in agriculture in the U.S., but the platform we’re building will be a programmable herbicide platform – we have the ability to program the herbicide to target specific genes in many different types of weed species. It’s a unique approach.
What led you to develop the idea for your biotechnology?
My former roommate at UVic was always pitching problems for us to solve, and one of those was finding a solution for dealing with invasive plants. An accelerator based in Victoria connected us with the Industrial Research Assistance Program (IRAP), and they ended up subsidizing our work for two years.
What have been the biggest barriers in building your company?
It’s been challenging to find external capital because there’s such a long regulatory window associated with our product. But we’ve managed to move forward by keeping our costs low – we work out of what is basically a “DIY” lab in Port Alberni, although we now have access to Foresight’s lab space after winning the New Ventures BC resource industry prize. We also aren’t doing a lot of parallel development, we’re really just focused on the one product.
What have been the biggest enablers so far?
One of the biggest is the dropping cost of doing what we do. Sequencing and creating synthetic strands of DNA has become much less expensive. It’s also gotten a lot faster. That’s made a huge difference to us.
From a financial perspective, IRAP and the scientific research and experimental development (SR&ED) tax credit have been critical in helping us get this far.
I’d also say that our ability to explain how the product would work – especially ahead of any testing – was helpful. New Ventures BC helped us develop our business model and prove the viability of our technology, and also pushed us to think beyond invasive species. This helped us gain some initial traction.
What kinds of opportunities are there for you to grow your product?
The first major market we want to tap into is controlling herbicide resistant weeds in agriculture in the US – these are extremely problematic for farmers. As the regulatory landscape changes, niche markets – such as organic and GMO-free – are opening up and are looking for chemical-free alternatives to traditional herbicides.
In addition, climate change is also creating new patterns of invasive plant growth – which often means an even bigger problem when it comes to the insects and pests they bring with them. Just think of the pine beetle in BC, for example.
The potential market for highly targeted herbicides is huge – it’s potentially a multi-billion dollar market. And once we get to market the applications are limitless. It can be used on any plant species any place in the world.
The next major milestone we’re working on is to prove that our lab-validated payload is compatible with current spray technologies. We should have these results by the end of Summer 2016.
What is the most surprising thing you’ve learned so far about starting up a cleantech business?
I had to wrap my head around the fact that, just because a particular problem is causing a lot of damage and costing a lot of money, it doesn’t mean there will be money available to fund a solution. It might feel like there’s a value proposition in the money that could be saved, but the people who are investing money in the solution aren’t necessarily the people who will benefit from it. Making that connection is more challenging than I expected.
What resources would you recommend to cleantech startups?
BCIC and Foresight offer a lot of great support to cleantech startups. Foresight not only provided us with lab space, but they helped us do a market research study on opportunities for our product – it helped us confirm that we’re targeting the right weed, which is critical given our resources are tight.
In terms of funding, I would take a look at the BC tax credit I mentioned earlier, IRAP, the SD Tech Fund, and the Genome BC loan program.
What advice would you give to a cleantech entrepreneur?
Make sure you have a business model that illustrates how you go from where you are now to well past profitability – even if it’s wrong (and it likely will be at some point). It will give you a place to start and something to show people and get them excited about your business.
I would also recommend applying to things – accelerators, funding competitions – even if it doesn’t seem like you would be a good fit. In my experience, those kinds of efforts often pay off.
For more information on Cotyledon Consulting, contact Chris firstname.lastname@example.org
For more information on the services and support that Foresight offers cleantech startups: foresightcac.com/services