IN² Portfolio Partnerships: Aker and CoverCress Help Each Other Grow


February 2, 2023—CoverCress Inc. (CCI) developed a new oil seed branded CoverCress™, derived from field pennycress. The grain is now used as a novel rotational cash crop that fits into existing corn and soybean rotation, allowing farmers to grow three crops in two seasons. This innovative crop delivers benefits for multiple end-uses, such as low carbon feedstock to produce renewable diesel, sustainable aviation fuel, and high-protein animal feed.

In 2022, CCI announced a commercial partnership with Bunge and Chevron to bring their new renewable oilseed crop to market creating a dedicated farm-to-fuel supply chain for the low carbon intensity feedstock.

“Many farmers are looking for more economics to help generate revenue for their farm. We’ve been very pleased about the interest and the excitement of this new crop. We didn’t just develop a new cash grain crop, we developed the market as well,” said CCI Vice President of Agronomy Chris Aulbach.

CCI, which was recently acquired by Bayer, was a member of the first agriculture cohort for IN2 and paired with scientists at the Donald Danforth Plant Science Center in St. Louis, Missouri. The cohort also included remote sensing company, Aker.

“Without the IN2 connection, we probably wouldn’t have known anything about Aker at all,” Aulbach said.

Aker CEO and Co-Founder Orlando Saez believes collaborating with CCI was the result of their work with scientists at the Danforth Center, during their IN2 projects, which led them to socialize how Aker’s remote sensing technology could help CCI tell their economic impact story to growers.

“That’s how we got to meet a whole bunch of people in the community, including CoverCress [Incorporated],” Saez said. “We were hanging out at the same events with researchers at the Danforth Center, and we got to talking about why CoverCress should use our technology on their plants. Innovation happens because of proximity. When people get closer together, great things happen.”

Additionally, they had help from Danforth staff. When Aker was ready for field trials, staff connected them to other companies also ready for field trials. CCI was a natural fit for Aker.

Saez describes Aker as “a crusader for truth” because its sensors and equipment can deeply diagnose plants, including identifying any problematic pathogens or environmental stresses. CCI wanted to learn the quality and uniformity of emergence for pennycress after planting.

“Every plant has a voice and we’re the amplifier,” Saez said. “We come back and say: this is what the plant is telling us. We bring specific measurements of plant physiology and plant health indications, and that’s the magic of why customers like us.”

When CCI is seeding in the CoverCress crop, they have several key insights to support growers making better crop management decisions. The first is that since the crop is air seeded, they need to know how many of the seeds did emerge into plants and where they will grow. Aker helps them determine the success and failure of that part of the process.

“Aker has the ability to collect imagery and they have the capacity to analyze it and we don’t,” Aulbach said. “This information will help us in the future with placement of the crop and managing diseases in our crop.”

The second insight is when the farmer must decide whether to use fertilizer on the pennycress, and Aker can help determine if the stand will be worth the expense of the fertilizer. Finally, CCI would like to know how well the plants have developed throughout the growing season and Aker’s data helps CCI explain to farmers if their pennycress crop is good and will be good, harvestable crop. Aker collected data on the process over two seasons, collecting more than 1,300 images.

“We collect images with a millimeter precision to determine if plants are healthy or not,” Saez said. “This helps train our machine learning model. The first time, a human has to review each image, but after that, for the second time and the third time, the system does the analysis automatically. In addition to collecting the data, we’re building the foundation to automate all the collection for the areas they care about.”

CCI knows that the success of the introduction of this new crop is through the farmer. Farmer satisfaction promotes greater opportunities for all stakeholders and a more vibrant industry.

“If we have ways we can detect if those plants will succeed prior to the farmer making a major financial commitment, that will be better for all parties,” Aulbach said.

Both sides hope the partnership can continue as CCI scales up and moves out of the R&D phase to the commercial stage. The testing the company went through with Aker will help significantly on the journey to commercialization.

“We were part of the experiment year for them in the discovery phase of their technology,” Saez said. “We hope to continue to scale our work to be more meaningful especially as they move from research plots into commercial farms.”

It’s important for startups to feel comfortable leaning on each other, especially within the IN2 family, because supporting each other helps each company grow.

“As a startup, you get distracted with shiny things and not the things that can help you. You want something that can help you. Aker was not a distraction. They can help us in supporting and developing our crops with us,” Aulbach said.

Saez is happy the two companies share a goal and a set of outcomes. Finding that with another company can be tricky, but the types of companies in the IN2 family seem to make it easier.

“Too often people get bogged down in activities instead of what they are trying to achieve. If we ask where they are going to be in the future, and find some mutual synergies, it’s better,” he said. “IN2 was fantastic in that it created the capacity to do this project with CoverCress. It gave us the opportunity and that was very catalytic.”

More Agriculture Stories