Ep 282 – Breakthrough In Photosynthesis Tech Helping Hemp/Cannabis

han chen zeakal

With hemp in growing demand, scientists are hard at work determining ways to increase plant yield. Here to tell us about it is Han Chen from ZeaKal, a plant science company revolutionizing hemp cultivation.

Learn more at https://www.zeakal.com 

Key Takeaways:

  • Han’s background in cannabis and how he came to start ZeaKal
  • An inside look at ZeaKal and its mission to vastly improve cannabis crop efficiency
  • Problems in hemp cultivation that ZeaKal is working to solve
  • How hemp cultivation compares to other crops like corn and soy
  • Secondary metabolites and why they’re important to hemp
  • Hemp’s potential to produce a more sustainable plant oil
  • ZeaKal’s dynamic with other industry players in the hemp ecosystem
  • How drones are proving useful for data collection in hemp cultivation
  • Where Han sees his research and the hemp industry as a whole progressing over the next 3-5 years
Read Full Transcript

Matthew: Hi. I'm Matthew Kind. Every Monday, look for a fresh new episode where I'll take you behind the scenes and interview the insiders that are shaping the rapidly evolving cannabis industry. Learn more at cannainsider.com. That's cannainsider.com. Now, here's your program.

Scientists are hard at work, increasing the yields from hemp plants. Here to tell us about it is Han Chen from ZeaKal. Han, welcome to CannaInsider.

Han: Thank you, Matt. It's an absolute privilege and honor to be on here with you.

Matthew: Give us a sense of geography. Where are you in the world today?

Han: Well, I'm sitting here in sunny San Diego, California, and fall has finally reached us.

Matthew: Okay. And what is ZeaKal, on a high level?

Han: So, ZeaKal, we're a plant traits company, and essentially what we're trying to do is improve plant photosynthesis. So, for those who don't know what photosynthesis is plants really enjoy soaking up sunlight and chewing up carbon. And after they do that, they make that carbon and energy from the sun into food, fuels, energy. In the case of cannabis, secondary metabolites like THC and CBD. What we try to do is allow our plants to soak up more sunlight, chew up more carbon, so that we can increase yields and also compositional profiles for these very important global crops.

Matthew: Okay. And can you share a little bit about your background, and journey, and how you got into the cannabis space, and then became part of ZeaKal?

Han: Right. So as ZeaKal, we're actually outsiders to the cannabis space. We're more just in the traditional agricultural side and, obviously, cannabis as a plant. We felt like our technology had huge applications for the sector. But if you rewind about 10 years, our history really starts in New Zealand. We are a spinout and joint venture of one of New Zealand's largest research institutes known as AgResearch.

At that time, the goal was, "How could we improve a very important pastoral crop in New Zealand called perennial ryegrass?" And what we were trying to do was to increase its energy content by increasing the amount of oil that's in perennial ryegrass. And through that project, when our grasses came back not only with higher energy and higher oil content, but they were anywhere between 24% to 50% larger, faster rates of growth, more yield, improved root-biomass architecture, we said, "Well, this is really unexpected and fascinating." And when we went back and we looked at how the technology was working in the plant, we discovered that, in addition to the improved energy profile, we were also improving the plants' photosynthesis.

And that was when ZeaKal really started as a commercial company in 2013, and we raised our first round of venture financing. Our primary focus at that time was to expand the technology into the major row crops, such as soybeans, corn, rice. And with the recent boom in cannabis investment, we saw a tremendous application of the PhotoSeed technology in this space. And we were fortunate enough that, in our last round of financing, that our lead strategic investor was Canopy Rivers. And Canopy Rivers really brought us into this space as a partner, and we're currently developing the PhotoSeed technology and hemp with them.

Matthew: Okay. And what is the problem or inefficiency in hemp that you're trying to solve? You mentioned the increasing photosynthesis. I mean, how do you accomplish these things and an increase of efficiency?

Han: Right. So I'll probably answer that question in two parts. You know, photosynthesis, in general, has really been an area that we haven't cracked. So if you look across crops, the major food crops, the major fiber crops, they look very different than what they're undomesticated cousins would look like in the wild. You know, the tomato that you see today is gonna be very different than the tomato that was uncultivated. And that's through just generations, millennia of breeding. And breeding has really helped improve yields and agronomic qualities.

But if you actually look at the plant's profile, even with the most productive of crops today, their photosynthesis actually isn't very different than their undomesticated wild cousins. And so this presents a huge technological opportunity to improve yields in an unprecedented way, in a way that can't be done through traditional breeding. So you take hemp then, for instance, it's a crop that's been largely undomesticated. It hasn't had the generations of breeding that some of the other crops have. So from a genetic profile and maturity standpoint, it's still relatively nascent and at the beginnings of crop domestication. I think when you look at the industry leaders, that's very much what they're focused on in terms of their genetics, and their strategy, and their breeding.

So while hemp is behind, though, it has one advantage, which is it's being domesticated in what I'll call the golden age of biology. You know, the toolsets that we've aggregated now, especially over the past 10 to 15 years, have really accelerated breeding, and hemp will really benefit from that. So what might have taken decades in the past, we can now compress to a few short years. And then if you overlay on top of that the PhotoSeed's technology, which can change photosynthesis and also change hemp's composition to produce new co-products, such as oil, you're really gonna accelerate the domestication of this crop in a very meaningful way, in a very short period of time.

Matthew: So is hemp kind of jumping to the front of the line in many ways because there's a lot of profit to be made in farming hemp?

Han: I think so. If I look at where hemp is even today, and what we're seeing in terms of the uses of hemp, and the productivity, and the profit margins, it's already quite exciting as a crop. And this is with very little or no research into the production of hemp. We really haven't figured out, as I mentioned earlier, the genetics or even the agronomics, how we grow, and harvest, and really standardize this. So I think that the opportunities for hemp are gonna be very, very significant.

And I think the one advantage of hemp, as well as if you look beyond the CBD market, which is what the primary end market is for growing hemp, it's really a platform crop, if you will, for enabling what I'll call a photosynthetic economy, meaning that it has applications for renewable energy, has applications for more sustainable textiles, it has applications in energy storage and even construction material. And these markets are far larger than what the current medicinal and recreational markets are for hemp. And so we're quite excited as we domesticate it, that this can really become a crop that can be on millions of acres, and not just thousands of acres where it is today.

Matthew: So you're working in seven different labs. What kind of work is being done there? Any highlights you can give us?

Han: Yeah, so we like to kinda call these different labs our gene-to-field capabilities. So they do everything from the design of the PhotoSeed genetics, optimizing it for the crops that we're working in, and then being able to develop these genetics into these crops, and then testing them in the field. And, at ZeaKal, we've always had a very unique business model, which is we really believe in the public-private partnership. You know, we have our roots with our co-founders in New Zealand, from basic science that was being developed by the New Zealand government. We were able to take that research and commercialize it with them.

And because of the success of that model, we've continued to try to replicate that in our growth strategies. So we always find the best public research organizations or universities that have skill sets, expertise, and resources in those certain crops. And we partner with them to develop our products in their labs. And what that does is allows us to put our people into existing infrastructure and also access existing expertise and capabilities, which, really, from an investment and R&D standpoint, keeps our costs low while accessing world-class capabilities.

Matthew: Okay. Now, you mentioned working with soy, corn, and now hemp. Does hemp present any kind of unique challenges that those other plants don't, and maybe any unique opportunities too?

Han: It does. Hemp, because it's been a relatively undomesticated crop, it also means that a lot of the toolsets that we've developed for corn and soy, for instance, just haven't been developed in hemp. And so, at ZeaKal, we're, in some ways, recreating some of this from scratch. It's a great launch point in terms of what's been done in other species. But every time you go into a new crop, there's always something unique and something tricky about it that requires time to figure out and optimize. So that's one of the unique challenges that we've faced with hemp.

But at the same time, though, hemp has a much faster product development cycle than other crops like soybeans and corn, between six to nine months. We can really be testing the efficacy of our technology versus...you know, soy could be as much as three or four years. And so those accelerated timelines, just because of the nature of the crop, make it a lot more attractive for us. And also because hemp is really being domesticated right now in the U.S., and that's the market we're focused on, it's not so much for international export. It also allows us to really shorten our time to market and focus on a single market, whereas a lot of times with the global commodities, you're touching so many endpoints that the at the time to market, the regulatory challenges, can be a lot more significant, which can extend timelines significantly as well.

Matthew: Can you talk a little bit about what secondary metabolites are, and what's important to know about them in terms of hemp?

Han: Right. So, secondary metabolites, they're a broad group of organic compounds. They're not necessarily essential to the plant's survival, but they do offer properties that are very unique. Plants use them as a form of defense a lot of times, but for humans we often use these secondary metabolites for their therapeutic purposes. You know, they include terpenoids, flavonoids, in the case of cannabis and hemp these so-called cannabinoids. And, within the cannabinoids, hemp produces a very unique one called CBD. And I think the audience probably knows that there's just a huge boom in the CBD market right now for therapeutic purposes. And it's really being integrated now into a number of specialty foods and beverages.

And so this is a very fast-growing market. And with the legalization of hemp in the U.S., I think we'll see an adoption increase at a very significant rate as well. From our standpoint, the reason why it's important is because the production of these so-called cannabinoids and CBD is very energy-intensive. The plant has to go through a very long and difficult process to make these cannabinoids. And so, what we try and do is provide more energy, if you will, converting more of that sunlight and CO2 into energy in order to provide a stronger source for the plant to produce more of these. And so, for the farmer and the producer, what that means is that we want to be able to densify the amount of these secondary metabolized produce on a per-acre basis.

Matthew: Okay. Now, plant oils is a big business. I think about soybean oil, canola oil, avocado oil is becoming more popular now, and macadamia. What about hemp oil? What are some applications for hemp oil that we may not be considering? I mean, you talked a little bit about CBD, but what are some other applications of the oil you think might jump to the forefront?

Han: So hemp oil from hemp seed, right now, is a growing commodity product, and a lot of people like it for its fatty acid profile and its health benefits. At ZeaKal, we also, with our PhotoSeed technology, we're thinking about expanding oil production into different tissue types. So you mentioned soybeans, you mentioned canola, hemp seed, for instance. And while these plants are great at producing oil, the seed is actually a very small part of the total biomass being produced. So the analogy I like to make is, "Imagine that you're a real estate developer, and you build this beautiful high rise, but you only sell the penthouse and you leave every other unit empty." I mean, that's essentially, in some ways, how we're producing plant oils right now. We only harvest the seed, and the rest of the plant isn't really being used for anything.

So with our PhotoSeed technology, the way that we increase photosynthesis is that we actually produce oil in every single cell of the plant, including in the green tissue. So all of a sudden, you look at a very productive plant like hemp, which has very high yields from biomass standpoint, and we start converting more of that biomass into oil, and all of a sudden, on a per-acre basis, your oil production's going to greatly exceed oil seed crops. And so, for farmers, what it does is it's really creating a co-product and allowing more of that plant to be used, and we're converting more of that plant's value into a high-value product like plant oils. And we can start even tailoring some of the oil profiles so that you can start creating some very healthy oils like Omega-3s, or long-chain fatty acids, oleic acids.

And if you think about it for industrial purposes, plant oils are a great feedstock for producing jet fuel, for producing biodiesel. A lot of the green chemistries that we use come from plant oils, but they're just simply too expensive if we're trying to source some from food-grade oils from the traditional oil seeds. So hemp could become a great source of industrial plant oils that could be used for the chemicals and the fuels industries without competing with food.

Matthew: Now, I'm sure you're focused largely on outdoor growing, but I know there's a lot of startups in indoor growing space, probably most notably Kimbal Musk, Elon Musk's brother in Boulder. He funds a lot of different startups in that space, but I haven't seen any kind of really take off yet. Is there anything exciting in the indoor kind of crop area that excites you?

Han: No, absolutely. And I think indoor agriculture has several advantages. I mean, I look at the growth of whether it's hydroponics, vertical farming, indoor agriculture in general. And what they can control there is light regiments, nutrient regiments, and really optimize environmental conditions for optimum yield. And our PhotoSeed technology, to be honest, would produce even higher and better results if you are tailoring all of those environmental factors to work with the genetics. So we're quite excited about the indoor growth opportunity as well.

However, if you start thinking about some of the applications beyond the higher-value products, and then you start thinking about, "Well, how can we take a very high yielding biomass crop like hemp...?", especially with its environmental benefits of carbon sequestration, carbon-neutral, even carbon-negative impact, and its benefits on soil health, etc. That's one of the reasons why we're quite excited about making sure that, in addition to the value that we can create in the indoor cultivation, the environmental sustainability benefits are also going to translate into broad acreages as well.

Matthew: Okay. Now, talk a little about soil remediation, if you will. I know hemp is known for kind of sucking the nutrients out of soil, but sometimes you see some farmers let their field take a break, or maybe plant alfalfa or another plant that can kind of add nutrients back into the soil. Is hemp one of those plants where, every season or two, you should like take a break and let it recover? I mean, how do you make the soil recapture nutrients so the plant can be grown optimally?

Han: You know, that's a great question, and I think there's not enough data at this point to really understand how hemp will be part of a large rotation program with other crops. I think that's something that, as we continue to domesticate hemp and it starts getting established across broader acreages, is something that we'll know more of. In terms of the health of hemp, it actually uses less inputs than a lot of other crops. I think farmers will be able to save significant input costs in terms of using hemp, even compared with other crops like corn or soy. And I think hemp, because of all of its other kind of co-productizations, will give farmers kind of an opportunity to access other markets rather than focusing on a single one.

And so, if I'm looking at the overall strategy, hemp is so great at carbon sequestration overall. And because of the low input costs, its environmental footprint, like I said, it could be neutral to negative. And I think as farmers are looking maybe towards looking at agriculture as a source of creating positive climate impact and also as a source of carbon sequestration...especially if, you know, farmers in the future can get paid for the benefits of taking more CO2 out of the air and put into renewable products like hemp, then I think we're gonna see hemp be part of that larger rotation, definitely with a better environmental benefit. But it's impact on the soil, we'll still need to do more studies and measurements around.

Matthew: You talk with a lot of other industry players in the hemp ecosystem and agriculture ecosystem. What are they talking about? What are their care-abouts and how do you work with them?

Han: So we touch a lot of different companies, from the genetics and seeds players, down to the ingredients companies, over to biofuels, and now into the cannabis and hemp space. And what really appeals to each of them is different in terms of the focus, but I think there's a universal message across the board, which is, "We think yield is important, because the more yield that we get per acre is critical." We don't have any more farmland. In fact, that's shrinking on a year by year basis, the amount of arable land that we have. So anything that we can do through agricultural intensification to produce more with less is absolutely critical.

In a lot of the developed countries like the U.S. and Canada, set yield is not enough though. You know, what we're also now looking at is also nutrition and also the environmental sustainability. So on a per-acre basis, we want to make sure that we're not just producing calories, but that we're producing higher value calories, primarily in the form of oil and proteins, and then making sure that we're doing so while minimizing our environmental footprint.

So, for us right now at ZeaKal, we're very excited at the fact that we can offer farmers yield, we can offer the consumers more nutritious products. For example, in our soybeans, not only are we giving higher seed yield, but the seed has a higher protein content in the meal, and we're also producing more healthy oils in our soy product, and we're all doing this through just sequestering more CO2 out of the air without the need for additional chemicals or fertilizers. So that's all really exciting and has a really strong consumer message.

But as far as hemp goes though, I think, across the board, whether it's the leading hemp companies and leading cannabis companies like Canopy, or Aurora, or it's the large Ag-biotech companies, or its processors, the ABCDs, everyone is looking at hemp. You know, they think that it could be the next big new crop that's being domesticated right now, and they see so many different end markets for it that kind of fit well with their capabilities, whether it's genetics, or processing, or distribution. You know, it's just something that everyone is keeping their eye on, far beyond what just the major companies are focused right now in terms of CBD and THC production.

Matthew: Do you ever see any kind of players, growers, big Ag companies use drones to kind of collect data from their fields, or satellites? Do you have anything you could talk about there in terms of how they do that and how that helps them?

Han: Yeah. So drone technology and satellite technology fall under a broad category of what I'll call imaging or digital agriculture. So if you look at agriculture in the past, it's been really about large acreage. You know, you plant homogeneous crops, and you apply fertilizer or chemistry and a pretty homogeneous rate across your field, and at the end of the season you harvest. And I think where the industry is heading towards right now, especially as we have better interconnectivity, we have better imaging technology, everything is now WIFI-enabled...we're taking in so much data, and more importantly we're interpreting that data in a meaningful way.

It's that we're now gonna be treating every acre of land, maybe even every square foot of land, in a very different way, in a very prescriptive way, so that a farmer walking through his field, he's going to know which areas are the most productive. He's going to know which areas need more attention, and he's gonna be able to calculate a return on investment based on the differences that he has in his field. And farmers who have farmed for 20, 30 years, they kind of know it intuitively in terms of that land, and what areas are gonna be more productive and what's not, and that's just from decades of experience.

But what digitization with imagery being part of that is it allows it to be standardized, it allows us to quantify what he's always known, and to allow him to make better prescriptive decisions with that toolset so that he knows exactly the rate of fertilizer he needs to supply so that in the future, maybe rather than spraying chemicals broadly, he can do spot treatments where necessary. And over time that data is gonna become a very important profile for him to understand how the productivity is changing over the seasons, and it's really gonna help evaluate what strategies and techniques are working.

And if you look at the broader demographics of agriculture right now, the average age of most farmers is over 65. And, in the U.S., less than 2% of our population is farming. So with the aging population, such a small demographic, the next generation of farmers, they're going to be farming a very different way. They're going to be able to rely on these toolsets, and hopefully these toolsets will offer them historic memory, if you will, a dataset that allows them to kind of have a higher jumping-off point in order to continue that productivity, what they're inheriting from their fathers or grandfathers.

Matthew: Okay. You know, I was reading something, a publication from NASA, recently, and they talked about the solar output, and the solar cycles, and energy that's produced by the sun, and how we're kind of approaching this Maunder Minimum where solar output looks to be going into a valley. Do you know anything about that, and maybe its implications for agriculture in general?

Han: Yes. So it's interesting that you mention that, because we've been talking about climate change, and CO2, and greenhouse gases kind of causes global warming, and now it's talking about these solar cycles that could lead to a period of cooling as well. And regardless of what the reasons are, what we're really seeing right now is what I'll call climatic volatility. And so if, for example, we go through a period of solar cooling, and all of a sudden we can't grow corn anymore in Iowa, and Iowa shifts down to Missouri, and Missouri shifts down to Arkansas, we're going to need to have new varieties that are being grown. At the same time, if CO2 continues to rise, it's not just the impact of droughts, and hurricanes, and floods. We see rising CO2 levels change levels of insect predation, for instance, and that's going to need to require new tools to combat that.

So I think agriculture is obviously very, very complicated, and you're always dealing with the environment, and every growing season is gonna be different. And so what we have to start doing is to start looking at ways that we can climate-proof our crops. So if we need to have crops that have higher salt tolerance, if we start losing more and more agricultural lands to salinization, we need to be able to grow crops in soils of higher salt levels. If the daylight starts changing, if all of a sudden Iowa becomes a lot colder and our harvest window decreases, we need to find ways to grow crops that might have shorter growing cycles but with the same yields. Or we need to find crops to have better root architecture so they can find nutrients and water in deeper areas and be more drought resistant.

So I think we look at all of these factors. You know, we can't predict all of them, but what we do know is the climate volatility leads to yield volatility, which then leads to economic volatility. And so, if we're gonna be able to smooth out our production, especially since we have a growing pressure to produce more food in the next 30 years, then we really have to find ways to reduce that variability, and biology is gonna be a huge part of that.

Matthew: Okay. What are your plans to generate revenue?

Han: So in the biotech space, or the genetic space for agriculture, the traditional model has kind of been the so-called "Intel Inside," where the seed has been the hardware and the technology has been the software, and you'll typically charge a licensing fee based on the value of that technology. And that's a model that's been pioneered by all the large companies, Bayer, Corteva, Syngenta. So that's a model that we're looking at as well, as we develop the technology with our major partners who will one day be our customers. We want to become that software that enables a productivity gain on top of the great work and the other products that are being stacked into that seed. So that seed represents billions in investment and is full of genetic code that gives amazing properties. And what PhotoSeed tries to do is try to enhance all of those properties by providing more energy to the plant, higher yield.

And then the other part of the business model could be that as we grow is that we want our own distribution, we want our own hardware, so we might start acquiring germplasm or seed assets, if you will, and then delivering that product, our genetics, and the seed together to farmers and growers. And that's a decision that we need to evaluate as the these markets continue to develop and our technology continues to mature, because there could be very different strategies depending on which crop and how big of a footprint that crop is. You know, we might find in some cases that our customers are all over the globe, and that our customers are largely consolidated, and it may make more sense to do the licensing model. In other cases where the market is still fragmented and we're kind of building that market, it may make sense to own those seed assets. So as our technology matures and develops, and as these markets continue to evolve, we'll kind of make that decision when the time comes.

Matthew: Okay. And where is ZeaKal in the capital-raising process?

Han: So we just closed our Series C financing earlier this year. It was a $15 million round led by Canopy Rivers for $10 million. And then our current investors also finished the round off with their pro-rata shares. So that $15 million funds us for the next five years, and I think it kind of puts us at a very unique junction at that point. As we talked about earlier, at the end of this funding round, we would've brought several products kind of into commercialization. And, at that point, we're really going to analyze, "Is it better for us to partner in license, or to maybe raise further financing and build some of those fiscal infrastructure and capabilities to deliver our product to market?"

And, right now, the primary focus of the company... We're well-capitalized, but we're also very interested in ongoing strategic partnerships and investment where it makes sense, especially that helps us develop our technology across a broader range of crops, as PhotoSeed really works across any plants species. And so we're very open to looking at those collaborations and discussions.

Matthew: Han, I want to shift to a few personal development questions to help listeners get a better sense of who you are. Is there a book that's had a big impact on your life or your way of thinking that you'd like to share?

Han: You know, that's a great question. I want to take a little bit of a different answer than maybe a lot of what your other interviewees may say. I grew up a lot with comic books, and I grew up a lot with Japanese manga. And one of the ones that I grew up with that seems to have continued to influence my life, even adulthood, especially as an entrepreneur, is the anime and the manga, "One Piece."

It's a story about a young boy who goes on a journey, he wanted to become the king of the pirates, and it talks about his journey through this. And what I found really interesting is that, as an entrepreneur, some of those lessons I have from my childhood still really hold true and has become a source of inspiration. Because, for me, personally, the entrepreneur is really like the hero's journey where you kind of start off with this dream and you try to see this much, much bigger world than the world that you knew. And through this process it's all about building great friendships, building your team, and your team is on this journey with you. And you all have different reasons for why the company and the entrepreneur journey becomes personal, but you somehow come together, and you try to make this work, and you overcome these challenges.

And I've always enjoyed One Piece because it was always kind of the anti-hero, the heroes are the pirates who are trying to run away from the Marines and the World Government, if you will, and they're kind of looked at as these outcasts. And it's really funny to me, because the entrepreneur is kind of like that as well. We're kind of fighting against the tide, if you will. You know, I think when we start our companies, everyone tells us that it can't be done. You know, there's always 1,000 reasons why can't be done. And that was something that I experienced a lot of. I can't tell you how many times I've been rejected, either from a partnership or an investor.

Photosynthesis, you know, what we've been working on, there's been about $10 billion of investment in this area, and it really hasn't been cracked yet. And the fact that we've been able to make such great progress and crack a lot of what couldn't be done, I mean, it was kind of like a one-in-a-million shot. And so, just keeping that focus, that perseverance, and that's a lot of the lessons I took from my childhood, and it's really those two things have really been the cornerstone of why I think it's gotten me through a lot of the tough parts of this entrepreneurial journey with its ups and downs.

Matthew: Interesting answer. I haven't heard that before. What is the most interesting thing going on in your field right now, other than what you're doing?

Han: You know, there's so many great technologies going on right now. As I mentioned earlier, it's really the golden age of biology, the toolsets that we have today that allows us to make very precise changes. You know, as we start understanding the genome of plants, and how they function, and all that data now being compiled and annotated for us to look at how we can improve the functionality of plants, that knowledge wasn't there even 10 years ago. And I think PhotoSeed and ZeaKal are just at the forefront of that. But when I look at what people are doing now in biologicals, soil remediation, through healthier biomes, when I look at what people are doing with RNAi technologies with gene editing, it's all very, very exciting. So I don't think in any way that ZeaKal is the only unique story here, but there's a lot that we're all kind of working towards and very excited about.

Matthew: Okay. I'm gonna ask you a Peter Thiel question. What is one thought you have that most people would disagree with you on?

Han: You know, I think, at the end of the day, what ZeaKal works in is...we work in trade technologies. And, unfortunately, right now, there is a huge consumer kind of, I would say, misinformation, and a lot of consumers right now are very kind of anti-GM or GMOs, and this a very broad topic, and one that I think has gotten a lot of attention, and one that's being revisited right now. And we think that traits and biotech, and for lack of a better word, GMO, is going to become a very necessary part of the world, and for us to feed our future, and in order to provide the climate-proofing that I talked about earlier. And a lot of people, I think, will push back on that. You know, a lot of people still believe that GMOs are an unnecessary technology, that they're unwanted technology. A lot of this is based on entrenched money interests, a lot of this based on misinformation.

And so, I think when we started this, everyone else has said to us, "Oh. Gosh. This is all too hard. Why would you kind of pick this area?" But I think, as a team, we were very committed to this journey and we were very committed to this technology, because we knew that it was based in strong science, that we were building a safe product with an application that can really help combat climate volatility and climate change, while delivering better nutrition to everyone. And I think, hopefully, as this technology comes to market, and we can have a rational conversation around it, and people start looking at the benefits and what's actually being measured, the quantifiable benefits of the tech, that they'll take a very different approach to it and they'll see that this is not just like what a lot of other products are, which is, "Oh you're putting more chemicals into the environment," "Oh, you're putting more toxins into the environment."

You know, I think they would kind of step back and say, "Wow, this is the first product where I can see a benefit for me. I'm getting better nutrition, I'm getting healthier foods, and I'm doing this in a way that is helping protect the environment and helping to safeguard the world for the next generation, and that my purchasing decision is going to make a positive societal environmental impact." And I think ZeaKal and PhotoSeed have the opportunity to do that, you know? But most people, when we started this journey, they were just very concerned about it. You know, they disagreed me that this wasn't the right strategy. And I kinda said to them, I said, "This technology, if it works, I think we have an opportunity to win over consumers. Let's not let current consumer sentiment and misinformation hinder us from starting on this journey and commercializing what I think is going to be an incredible game-changing technology for the world."

Matthew: Yeah. I think there's a lot of room here. I mean, there is definitely... I'm pro-science, and I think there's a huge amount that can be done, and we're gonna need to have happen for the world's growing population. At the same time, I think there's kind of a cynicism with the public when they see like a cola manufacturer use corn oil or a partially hydrogenated oil, or a cookie manufacturer use that, and then you go over to Europe and they're using sugar. And some people are having like an inflammation response, and it's not just really well understood, like, sometimes how the ingredients impact us. I think that if there's these biotech companies that do the right thing, make excellent advances in technology, and also show that they're looking out for how the response can be measured in the body, it is welcome. There's a lot of room for it.

Because I just look at how different regions of the world, different geographies allow for kind of cheaper ingredients to be substituted in and how those effects are, at best, unknown. But other times, they are known, like there's an obesity epidemic in the U.S. And a lot of that, I think, has to do with finished products, making poor choices in terms of partially hydrogenated oils, and also some food scientists just leveraging technology to make food kind of addictive, where it's like, "Once I open a sleeve of such and such, like you feel compelled to finish it." So I think if there's like a sweet spot in there where there's biotech meets kind of like, "That's optimum growing," and then one that's like optimum pro-human, I think that would be the future, hopefully.

Han: Matt, those are all such excellent points. And I think what you're kind of revealing right now is the complexity of the issues, and really the complexity of our food supply chain. Because I totally agree with you, is that there's been a lot of irresponsible decisions made by industry, and unfortunately that's eroded public trust a lot of times. But I guess the optimist in me also believes that a lot of our industry leaders are making those mistakes in the past, just because we didn't know any better, are now also taking the lead on trying to fix those mistakes, and trying to provide the next generation of products.

I think as a society, what we need to do is we need to start moving away from this idea that there's a clear line in the sand and everything falls under one camp or the other. You know, it just seems to me that a lot of people say, "Well, if you believe in climate change, you have to be anti-GMO," and the two are really unrelated. In fact, I would argue quite the opposite. If we are going to fight climate change, we really need to put every single toolset at our availability, and to be able to use those tools to grow crops in a more sustainable way.

And to your earlier point, also, about in the U.S. we have obesity issues, you have diabetes issues. And if we look at global food production, there's really a tale of two cities, if you will. You know, in the U.S, we fought off starvation, we fought off famine, we fought off hunger, because there was a concerted effort between government, industry, NGOs to say, "How do we uplift the production of food in order to to meet this demand?" And if you look back at the pioneers that did this, Dr. Norman Borlaug... I was just at the World Food Prize, which was an event that was created by him. But Dr. Borlaug saved probably billions of people from death, from malnourishment, and we've made that kind of social contract to get past that.

And as a nation now, I think we need to focus more on nutrition rather than calories. But that's a very different story if you go to parts of Southeast Asia, Latin America, Africa, where it's very much still about calories, and they don't have the luxury often of substituting one protein for the other. And in cases like that, the issue is, "As we spread our misinformation about the value of these technologies and we prevent them from being adapted, we're essentially denying solutions that could be critical for the security of these other countries." And I just don't think that, as first-world nations that are trying to lead the world into more prosperity, that we can deny that moral right to them.

And so, our supply chain, our food chain, our consumers have to understand that there's different points of development for different countries, and that we have to make sure that we're making technologies available to meet those needs, and that we need every single toolset here. You know, we have 30 years, 30 growing seasons, to increase food production globally by 70%. That 70%, in terms of that gain, represents every single productivity increase from every single innovation in agriculture for the past 10,000 years. We have 30 growing seasons to make that happen.

So that's the need, that's the urgency that we all face. And so, as we kind of look at what needs to be done, we have to take a hard look at the science, and we have to start taking a hard look at what we need to do to meet this demand. Otherwise, the truth is, is that we're gonna see a lot of people starve, we're gonna see a lot of countries become destabilized, or who will have more issues with terrorism, or have large refugee migrations, and this is going to add a huge burden to every single country in the world. And we're already seeing the effects of that right now in terms of our current geopolitical climate, and all of that really stems from food insecurity.

Matthew: Yeah, I would agree with that, and also agree with you that you do have to make empathetic choices to help people get the calories they need so they can survive. No doubt. And I also think that, back to that Maunder Minimum point, it's going to be interesting to watch as this volatility increases, and what happens if South America experiences some crop destruction, and the impact on the Northern Hemisphere, and vice versa. So interesting times lay ahead. I'll let you get back to the hard work of the next 30 growing seasons, because we need guys like you in the lab to solve that problem. It's not going to be me. So I'm glad you're around.

Han: Well, we'll do our best, and we're only a part of the solution. But the message of hope right now is there's a lot of entrepreneurs out there like ZeaKal, and there's a lot of great industry leaders. You know, I look at the work that Aurora, Canopy, that they're doing right now. I mean, it's beyond the cannabis industry and the hemp industry. I think everyone's working right now to really change agriculture to bring in the next generation of crops that will allow us to produce the food, feed, fibers, and fuels for the next century.

Matthew: Great. Well, Han, thanks so much for coming on the show and educating us. How can listeners follow your work and connect with you online?

Han: Well, any a listener can find me on LinkedIn, so please follow us there. We're also on Twitter, so you can kind of see a lot of times we're at various conferences and upcoming events. So please follow us on social media. And if anyone wants to reach out, you can write to us at info@zeakal.com.

Matthew: And can you spell ZeaKal for us?

Han: Sure. Z-E-A-K-A-L.

Matthew: Han, thanks again for coming on the show. We really appreciate it.

Han: Thank you, Matt. It was my pleasure. A lot of fun.

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