When Diane Wu and Poornima Parameswaran founded Trace Genomics in 2015, they barely understood the importance of soil health to farmers’ businesses. Now, however, farmers—traditional and organic—are accelerating efforts to achieve quality soil, from adopting techniques such as “cover cropping” to incorporating plants and livestock onto the farm.
Trace Genomics creates soil testing kits and uses DNA sequencing and machine learning to measure the health of soil and detect diseases. With Trace, growers can compare soil health across multiple farms, manage disease risk by quantifying pathogen levels, and compare fertilizer performance and soil treatments.
Wu and Parameswaran are among a new generation of women developing solutions to some of the biggest challenges in agtech—historically a field dominated by men. Many farmers are wrestling with the reality that quality soil has been depleted because of pesticides and traditional ways of farming such as tilling. One-third of the world’s arable land has been lost due to erosion or pollution over the past 40 years—with potentially disastrous consequences as global demand for food soars. Moreover, disease in soil can lead to crop failures and significantly impact the bottom line.
Since Trace was created, the company has grown to 33 full-time staff, including experts in biology, agronomy, data science and software engineering. So far, it has raised $22 million more than the typical amount of capital raised by agtech startups.
Wu and Parameswaran don’t come from agriculture backgrounds, and neither have a family history in farming. Wu majored in computer science at Simon Fraser University, and Parameswaran came to the U.S. from Bahrain (where her father was stationed for work) and earned a molecular biology degree at the University of Texas at Austin. Driven by a love for research and desire to use her science skills in public health, Parameswaran enrolled in the Ph.D. program in Stanford University’s Departments of Microbiology & Immunology and Genetics in 2004.
“I was moving toward a career in the academy and going up the tenure track,” Parameswaran recalls, “but once I got into Stanford I was bitten by the bug of innovation, and really making an impact on society.”
The women met at Andrew Fire’s lab at Stanford University. Fire is a Nobel Laureate in physiology and medicine and served as Wu’s dissertation advisor. After earning her PhD in genetics and specializing in computational biology at age 25, she worked for Palantir Technologies as part of a data science team dedicated to solving problems in areas such as fraud and crime. The two shared a passion for using genomics and big data to tackle the roots of disease and applying their research to the real world.
Interested in starting her own company, Parameswaran attended the summer entrepreneurship institute at Stanford’s business school. After graduating from Stanford in 2010, she went on to do a post-doc at the University of California, Berkeley, and while there worked with Nicaragua’s health ministry.
They started to work on a product to detect diseases in soil, and what would become Trace Genomics. They regularly drove down to Salinas Valley, Calif., where they began connecting with farmers.
In 2015, they decided to focus solely on their fledgling startup. It saw early success by winning spots in highly competitive accelerators—including THRIVE, an agtech incubator based in Silicon Valley. In 2016, Trace had beat nine other startups in THRIVE and was recognized as the most promising agtech startup.
In October 2019, Trace announced it hired a new CEO, Dan Vradenburg, who’d previously been president of Wilbur-Ellis’ agribusiness division. Now, Parameswaran serves as president, and Wu is the chief technology officer.
The focus has also been on developing a soil test for Fusarium wilt, a disease specific to lettuce that has broken out in the U.K. and Yuma, Ariz. Wu and Parameswaran got the idea for the test after they met with lettuce growers in Yuma.
These recent milestones in both raising capital and building a team are signs that Trace is on the upwards trajectory of success. That said, since the company launched, the agtech space has also expanded with more players and investors.
What is certain is that Wu and Parameswaran have braved a trail as pioneers in a niche and yet fast-growing sector, and proven that age, race and gender should not be barriers to success. Moreover, soil health appears to be a priority for both conventional and organic growers. Carbon sequestration, incorporating with livestock, native meadows and examining the combination of ecology and agriculture, and experimenting with growing methods such as cover cropping and roll and tilling are signs that Trace is part of a greater solution to a challenge.
Both women agree that keeping their eye on their mission to solve problems for farmers is the key to success.
This story was originally published on Techonomy.