A Conversation with...
Dr William Pelton is the CEO of Phytoform Labs. He co-founded the company in 2017 with Nicolas Kral, whom he met while studying at Imperial College London. Dr Pelton spoke to CHAP about his passion for plants and sustainability, saying time spent with his grandfather on the family farm formed the foundations of that interest.
How do you generally introduce yourself and the work you do?
Nicolas Kral (my co-founder) and I founded Phytoform Labs Ltd with two aims: to improve the sustainability of agriculture and make crops more nutritious. There are many approaches to solving these two issues and we think the most important is harnessing the untapped potential of plant’s DNA. An example of the potential was the improvement of wheat during the green revolution. One mutation in a single gene reduced the height of wheat by half which led to yield increases of 6x in some countries! Phytoform Labs is bringing together two cutting edge technologies, artificial intelligence (AI) and genome editing to discover new traits and introduce them with minimum genetic disruption quickly and efficiently. We like to say that we are unlocking the potential of crop genetics. To make the biggest impact possible we are building our platform to work on many different crops species not just one or two.
What does a typical day look like for you and what are you currently working on?
We secured our pre-seed round of funding at the end of last year so there haven’t been many typical days. We have built a fantastic and talented core team who we work with to develop our technologies and I spend time managing our current projects: working on tomato and potato. I also spend a lot of time developing our next projects and finding partners – these projects will include an alternative plant protein crop for which we are looking for partners.
What circumstances led you you to set up Phytoform? What were you doing before you launched the company?
Nick and I met during our PhDs at Imperial College London (ICL), we were both working on plant science projects – me in Potato and Nick on the plant model, Arabidopsis thaliana. We were both keen to do something more applied to directly tackle the sustainability and nutritional issues in agriculture. We had starting using genome editing tools which at the time were very new. Genome editing as a new cheap DNA writing tool, together with cheap DNA sequencing technologies, has revolutionised the plant science world. With these DNA reading and writing tools, and with brilliant support from ICL, we explored the agricultural industry and identified the technologies we needed to help make agriculture greener and better for consumers.
Do you have a mentor or someone whose work inspired you? Who were they and how have they influenced your career?
My grandfather was a farmer and I enjoyed time spent on the farm. He, like farmers everywhere, was very innovative and always had projects on the go. I think my younger days on the farm built my interest in agriculture and particularly in plants. I think it also led me to understand how precarious an industry it could be, which has brought me to where I am now.
Has the work you do been affected by/benefited from being a CHAP member? If so, how?
CHAP has been a great resource for us to meet others in the industry and develop our network as well learn about ways our technology could help. Through CHAP we have met potential project partners and we plan to partner with CHAP on a number of grant applications.
What are your biggest professional challenges?
My co-founder and I built the company after our PhDs so we have had to quickly get to grips with management and leadership roles. It has been tough at times but it has also been enormously rewarding and I am really excited about the future of the industry and our company!
What do you think will be the biggest change in Agriculture over the next five years? How could this affect the work that you do?
I think the biggest changes will in the mindset of the agricultural industry. As consumers become more conscious of where their food came from and food producers are more and more affected by climate change, the industry will have to embrace new innovations. Technologies under the umbrella of precision agriculture will be at the forefront of this “green revolution” and that will include technologies like ours as well as robotics, microbiology and chemistry.
What do you do when you aren’t working?
Maybe unsurprisingly I am a keen gardener and although I only have a small balcony, I try to maximise what I can grow. I am looking forward to this year’s tomatoes and lettuce!
CHAP member Phytoform Labs Ltd is a next generation crop breeding platform tackling unsustainable agriculture and improving the nutrition of the crops we eat. It does this by discovering new and improved crop traits, using data science, and building them into a wide range of crops using its genome editing technology. For more information go to phytoformlabs.com