By Kathleen Berger, Executive Producer for Science and Technology
David Woodburn sees sunflowers as hope for the future! Woodburn is CEO of St. Louis-based agtech startup Edison Agrosciences.
“There’s actually a strategic raw material that that plant is producing,” said Woodburn.
And that raw material is natural rubber. In 2020, Woodburn said Edison Agrosciences produced what he believed to be a world’s first – a sheet of natural rubber produced from sunflower leaves. The rubber was produced from sunflowers grown in a lab at the Donald Danforth Plant Science Center.
Edison Agrosciences is using gene editing technology to increase the levels of natural rubber production in sunflowers for extraction, as well as breeding strategies.
“Leverage the 1.5 million to two million acres a year that’s grown in the U.S.,” said Woodburn.
The idea gained support. BioGenerator, the investment arm of BioSTL, invested and supported the company’s move to St. Louis from North Carolina. Edison Agrosciences leveraged $1.7 million in federal grant funding and won a $50,000 grant from Arch Grants in St. Louis.
“Some of our experimental plants were in a field trial here in Missouri and we saw increase in natural rubber in those plants.”
The company won a spot in the Wells Fargo Innovation Incubator. Edison Agrosciences is one of five companies awarded up to $250,000. The companies will also receive technical support from the Donald Danforth Plant Science Center.
So why so much interest in sunflower rubber?
“There’s a huge supply chain issue with natural rubber. It’s a strategic raw material that’s used in thousands, tens of thousands of products. And all of it is grown over 10,000 miles away and harvested manually from a tree species that’s been wiped from its native continent by disease,” he explained.
Woodburn said an alternative source of natural rubber is important because 90% of the world’s natural rubber comes from one geographic area – Southeast Asia.
“The entire rubber market is split roughly evenly between natural rubber and synthetic. We still rely on natural rubber because it has certain performance characteristics that can’t be matched by synthetic materials.”
Common examples range from high performance tires to athletic shoes.
“Either due to temperature extremes, abrasion resistance, impact resistance. Consider an aircraft tire. At altitude, is at least minus 40 degrees Celsius. And then upon touchdown, the surface temperature when that rubber hits the pavement is 400 degrees. And so a synthetic material can’t handle that type of extreme.”
U.S. sunflower fields annually produce roughly 50,000 tons of natural rubber in the plant leaves, but the concentration in each sunflower would be too low and costly for extraction. With the new Wells Fargo – Danforth Center boost, Woodburn hopes to expand research to further identify varieties of sunflowers with higher rubber content for selective breeding and boosting natural rubber production.
“There are two approaches,” he explained. “The gene editing approach, but the other approach is to look at the genetic diversity that’s already existent and then just breed.”
Woodburn believes it’s a golden opportunity for the U.S. to have a reliable source of natural rubber at home.