DuPont, NexSteppe collaborate on sorghum development

By Kris Bevill | January 09, 2012

NexSteppe, a feedstock development company focused on servicing the biofuels, biopower and biobased products industries, recently announced a collaborative agreement with DuPont to develop sweet sorghum and high biomass sorghum hybrids. As part of the agreement, DuPont has invested an undisclosed sum in NexSteppe and will provide resources and technologies for sorghum development through its Iowa-based Pioneer Hi-Bred plant genetics development and seed supplier business. NexSteppe has gathered sorghum germplasm from sources around the world and will use the samples in a breeding program to be led by Jerry O’Rear, an experienced sorghum breeder, according to NexSteppe. The purpose of the breeding program will be to develop products specifically for use in a variety of biobased industries.

NexSteppe was created in October 2010 and is led by Anna Rath, a former executive at energy crop seed development firm Ceres Inc. Rath said she formed NexSteppe in order to focus solely on developing products for the biobased industries. “While there are others with some activity in this area, the large seed companies are mainly focused on the major row crops, the smaller sorghum seed companies are focused on the grain and forage markets and the agricultural biotech companies are largely focused on the development of their core technologies,” she said. “In contrast, NexSteppe is a purpose-built company fully dedicated to providing feedstock solutions to these industries.”

Rath’s company has targeted sorghum and switchgrass varieties because they are high-yielding, have a wide geographic range, require few inputs and offer favorable economics for growers and processors, she said. As mentioned, some work has been done to develop sorghum varieties, but the desirable traits for forage or grain are opposite of what would be desired for bio-based applications, she said, adding that the collaboration with DuPont will help NexSteppe accelerate the breeding process and bring bio-based focused feedstocks to market faster. NexSteppe has not yet formed any similar collaborations to accelerate switchgrass development.