A phrase commonly heard in gardens (and among gardeners) is “to plant a garden is to believe in tomorrow.” Although the originator, Audrey Hepburn, was almost certainly not referring to synthetic biology, she could have been talking about one of the field’s most recently launched companies.
The Paris-based company, Neoplants, uses bioengineering and directed evolution to create “plants with a purpose.” Their first product—the Neo P1—is a houseplant designed to fight air pollution by capturing and recycling volatile organic compounds (VOCs) such as formaldehyde, benzene, toluene, and xylene from indoor air.
Think of it like an air purifier—with leaves.
Neoplants was started in 2018 by Lionel Mora, CEO, and Patrick Torbey, PhD, CTO. GEN met the two entrepreneurs in NYC for lunch recently, when they were stateside to meet investors.
Mora left his post at Google, blaming his millenial status and its requisite desire to make an impact of the world. Torbey, who is Lebanese, started his genetics training working in TALENs. But it was 2013 when he moved to Paris to study genome editing, at the same time CRISPR was becoming a thing.
Mora and Torbey met at an incubator called Entrepreneur First which mixes scientists and people with a knack for business. They had both jumped off of their previous career tracks with the goal to create something impactful. Together, they quickly settled on plants.
They had two goals right out of the gate. The first was to create a product that could make an impact now—not ten years down the road. The second goal was to use that first use case (the Neo P1) to build the core technologies that would allow them to tackle larger problems down the road.
As for larger problems, climate change is at the top of the list, noted Mora. There are a lot of software, mechanical, or chemical solutions out there, he said. But Neoplants cannot imagine a future where biology isn’t part of the solution.
Today, the company of 20 employees is building a 12,000 square foot bioengineering lab north of Paris. They have raised roughly $20 million and have a handful of private investors whose expertise carries as much as weight as their wallets (Emily LeProust, PhD, from Twist, Dan Widmaier, PhD, from Bolt Threads, and Niklas Zennstrom from Skype, to name a few.)
Bacteria and plants
The team chose the popular houseplant Pothos (Epipremnum aureum) to create the Neo P1 which, they say, is thirty times more effective than common houseplants at removing VOC’s from the air. In order to achieve this, the team first had to sequence the plant. They then inserted the biochemical pathways that break down the compounds into the genome of the plant. The pathways convert formaldehyde into fructose, a sugar that the plant uses as a food source and convert benzene, toluene, ethyl-benzene, and xylene (BTEX) into an amino acid. They also had to make sure, noted Torbey, that the compounds at the end of the pathways could be integrated by the plant’s endogenous metabolism.
But the engineered plant alone is not enough. In order to turnover VOCs more efficiently, the plant needs the right microbes. In fact, Torbey suspects that the microbiome that is added to the Neo P1 is more efficient at breaking down VOCs than the plant itself.
The company sells the microbes in the form of Powerdrops which need to be added every few months to keep the plant functioning at maximum efficiency. Which microbes? The team identified bacteria (Methylobacterium extorquens and Pseudomonas putida) that were able to survive in polluted environments—that have adapted naturally to survive on formaldehye or benzene. The microbes last about a month, so need to be replenished regularly. Mora makes a comparison to an air purifier—if you don’t change the filter, it doesn’t work.
For $179, a customer gets the plant, the self-watering stand (called the Neoplants Shell), and the first dose of the microbiome. The plants start shipping at the end of this year.
What if your green-thumb is not green at all? The team at Neoplants has included a water reservoir, making the plant harder to kill than most. The Neo P1 only has to be watered once a month during the winter, and once every two weeks over the summer.
But, does it work? At the moment, there is no way for the customer to know. VOC levels are hard to measure, especially in a home. A person would need analytical chemistry methods to take those measurements.
However, the company asserts that they have done rigorous testing—which is available in a white paper—and is focused on developing tools to enable the customer to take those measurements. For example, creating a sensor to indicate if the plant is making a difference in the air. And, as Mora points out, most people who use air purifiers don’t really know if they are working either.
The hope is that the Neo P1 will be viewed as both a better air purifier and a better house plant (one that is equivalent to 30 normal plants.) How many homes does Neoplants hope will have a Neo P1 in the future? All of them, they say. They plan to introduce a new type of plant each year because some people may want a choice. And, Mora sees no reason why every plant cannot be a Neoplant.