Pairwise may be a young startup, but the company has broad ambitions to improve fruits and vegetables already being sold today to make them more palatable for fussy or on-the-go consumers. The company has plenty of market to capture if it can follow through on its broad ambitions. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, just 1 in 10 adults meet federal recommendations for daily fruit or vegetable consumption.
Pairwise is focusing its early efforts on a few fruits and vegetables before turning its ambitions to other products in these categories. It is using CRISPR to change the DNA to remove the bitterness from a nutrient-dense green, the seeds from the outside of a blackberry and the pit in a cherry.
The company told Food Dive last year that if greens taste better or the pit in a cherry is removed — an awkward thing to do for an individual consuming them in public — an adult may be more likely to make a salad or eat the fruit away from home. At the same time, a child who has textural issues with seeds may be more likely to embrace a seedless berry in their school lunchbox.
But science, even using a faster-process like CRISPR, takes time and plenty of money to make it happen. Pairwise said last year it is optimistic it can roll out its first leafy green to market as early as 2022 due to the fact that they grow more quickly. But fruits are much more complicated because it takes several years for the tree or bush to grow and then additional time to scale up production.
Ryan Rapp, head of product discovery who handles fruits at the company, said it may not be until 2023 when seedless blackberries hit the market and several years later for cherries because it takes more time for the tree to develop.
Early gene editing drew widespread criticism, with companies involved blasted for being too secretive with the public in terms of the work they were doing and its potential impact on their health. For produce made using CRISPR, a big part of its future success could be determined based on how transparent companies like Pairwise are.
“As long as we stick to our values and transparency and being open with them, I think consumers are going to love this,” Rapp said.
Consumers increasingly want to know where their food comes from and how it’s made, so if food manufacturers using CRISPR are open about their use of the technology to create produce, it might foster goodwill with shoppers by showing they have nothing to hide — even if a particular individual is personally hesitant to try it. But some say crops made using gene-editing and CRISPR technologies are inevitable. Pairwise co-founder and chief business officer Haven Baker said in an interview earlier this year that in a decade, gene-edited produce could make up the same proportion of the category as plant-based milk does today in dairy.
The fact that Bayer is investing again in Pairwise shows the young company has positioned itself in a potentially lucrative area of the market ripe for growth. In 2018, Pairwise reached a deal with Monsanto, now owned by Bayer, in which the St. Louis company invested $100 million to bolster Pairwise’s intellectual property in row crop applications and the opportunity to develop for commercial use any products emerging from the collaboration. That same year, Pairwise announced $25 million in Series A funding led by Deerfield and what is now Leaps by Bayer to develop its gene editing platform and initial product portfolio.
As people look to eat healthier and consume more better-for-you offerings, a shift that has accelerated during the pandemic, shoppers will be looking for more reasons to increase their daily servings of fruits and vegetables going forward. Removing hurdles to make that happen could place companies like Pairwise at the center of this ongoing shift.