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The Molecular Biologist Who Would Feed the World Sorghum

Jun 19th, 2014

 Chromatin Inc. is the company that almost wasn't. Daphne Preuss, a University of Chicago molecular geneticist, co-founded the startup in 2001 with plans to engineer mini-chromosomes to make designer plants, based on her research. While she signed on as head of its scientific advisory board, investors turned elsewhere for management. That was problem No. 1.

The second was Chromatin's business plan. The real money was in crafting new varieties of farm crops, but giants Monsanto Co. and DuPont Pioneer already had a lock on the most widely planted commodities, corn and soybeans.

In 2006, the board persuaded Ms. Preuss to dial down her hours at her lab and become the company's CEO. Among her first moves was identifying a viable niche. “We needed to find something small enough that was a good opportunity for us, not so big that we would not have a chance,” she says.

The crop was sorghum, which, despite being the fifth-most-popular grain worldwide, had been passed over by bioengineers.

Today Chromatin's teams in Champaign and Texas, working with eight nurseries around the world, develop thousands of new varieties of sorghum each year from traditional cross-breeding; varieties containing the company's patented mini-chromosomes are under development.

Chromatin has 40 varieties on the market designed to be higher-yielding, nutrient-efficient or drought tolerant. A new one, known as brown mid-rib after a vein in the middle of the leaf, is easier for cattle to digest. That boosts dairy production while reducing feed costs.


The health food market is latching on to sorghum, best known as a source of molasses. “Sorghum grains are full of antioxidants. In some types, there's as much antioxidant as blueberries,” says Ms. Preuss, 51. “It is also gluten-free. So it's used in gluten-free flours and beers and cereals.”

The company, based in downtown Chicago, has 200 employees and tens of millions of dollars of annual revenue, though Ms. Preuss won't disclose more exact numbers. In January, Chromatin raised $36 million in series E financing, with Wood Creek Capital Management of New Haven, Connecticut, leading the effort, raising its fetch to $70 million.

John Banta, CEO of IllinoisVentures LLC, a Chicago early-stage investment firm that has invested in Chromatin, says Ms. Preuss is a rarity. “The cultural divide between the two settings”—a university research lab and a startup business—“can be great, which is why it is so unusual for later-stage CEOs to derive from the lab/classroom,” he says.

Ms. Preuss, who holds a 1990 doctorate in biology from MIT, grew up eastern Colorado. She saw herself becoming an inventor like her hero Thomas Edison, “deploying science to improve people's lives.” As a teen, she worked in her family's hardware distribution business, sweeping floors and making sales calls. She says her parents' comeback from a fire that destroyed their warehouse helped inspire her own “rising from the ashes” story at Chromatin.

By: Howard Wolinsky June 14, 2014 

About Chromatin, Inc. 

Chromatin Inc. develops sorghum for both traditional agriculture and applications in renewable energy. It provides high quality sorghum seed to growers and producers who are attracted to the crop’s rapid maturation, tolerance to heat, cold and drought and high yields. Chromatin has optimized its product portfolio to create sorghum feedstocks that serve as ideal renewable resources for emerging bio-based industries such as liquid transportation fuels, chemicals, materials and biopower. Today, Chromatin’s products are sold in the U.S. and in more than 20 countries and its sorghum seeds are planted on over 4 million acres worldwide. For additional information, please visit