How I got closer to the dinner table as a geneticist

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Unfold
Jan 26, 2021 · 3 min read

Derek Drost, VP of Plant Genetics, Unfold

My journey to Unfold began as a “classically” trained Ph.D. candidate at the University of Florida (UF). Ever since then, I’ve been interested in the role that technology could play in transforming and accelerating society, especially the food supply.

Tied to this pursuit, my Ph.D. course work put me at the leading edge of marrying genomic technologies, data science, and plant breeding, where I found new ways to link genes with their function in plants. Intrigued by the ability to predict how plants would perform in their environment based on their DNA sequence, I knew that I wanted to work in the ag industry to continue exploiting this knowledge for the betterment of the world.

My Ph.D. training helped me secure a job at Monsanto, which was one of the largest agtech companies. There I worked as a plant geneticist for field corn. Using the knowledge that I gained from UF, I strived to increase yields and improve crop sustainability by enhancing the genetic immunity of corn to the evolutionary pressures of bacterial, fungal, and viral diseases in open-field environments.

While Monsanto allowed me to quickly gain exposure and insights into the workings of the agriculture industry, I wanted to be closer to the end consumer and their dinner plate — the real judge of the performance of our food supply. That’s why when an opportunity emerged to move into Monsanto’s vegetable seeds division, I took the jump and moved to California.

It was there that I discovered the world of vegetable crop diversity and began supporting projects aimed at not only improving the sustainability of growing the world’s supply of produce but also increasing the consumer acceptance and benefits of the produce chain. By pursuing traits, such as improved flavor, shelf life, texture, and nutritional content, our results helped deliver innovative new tomato, spinach, and squash varieties that delighted growers and consumers alike.

While I enjoyed my productive tenure at Monsanto, I always have held firm in my belief that we could accomplish even more through open approaches to innovation and product development. So, in 2018, I made a career change and joined BASF in the areas of scouting and collaboration management. I supported open innovation directly by catalyzing strategic collaborations and partnerships to accelerate internal R&D projects. This work opened my eyes to an innovation landscape that, quite frankly, I had lost sight of by focusing only on internal research projects. It also exposed me to vertical farming.

Attending indoor ag conferences, visiting university researchers, and vertical farm growers in my scouting role, in addition to seeing the dizzying array of sensors, controllers, lighting systems, and fertigation platforms underscored my belief in the opportunity that is vertical farming.

As I dug into the landscape of external innovations supporting the vertical farming industry, it became evident that the vegetable plants adapted through purposeful breeding and selection to this new, unforeseen-by-nature growing environment were missing. I became convinced that to maximize the value of vertical farms, we needed plant varieties that were thoughtfully built to adapt to the nuances of the environment.

Guided by this conviction, I jumped at the opportunity to join Unfold as their VP of Plant Genetics. It was a natural fit and the next step in my career. I couldn’t be more excited about what the team will deliver to the industry — precisely designed new plant architectures that will maximize the productivity of the vertical environment for growers, while concurrently delighting consumers with new colors, flavors, and nutritional profiles through a sustainable supply chain that none of us would have imagined only a decade ago.

After several pit stops along the way, my work can finally be enjoyed at the dinner table.

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Unfolding the potential for superior food for a sustainable future food culture