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Gene-editing startups ignite the next ‘Frankenfood’ fight



By Rod Nickel

(Reuters) – In a suburban Minneapolis laboratory, a tiny company that has never turned a profit is poised to beat the world’s biggest agriculture firms to market with the next potential breakthrough in genetic engineering – a crop with “edited” DNA.

Calyxt Inc, an eight-year-old firm co-founded by a genetics professor, altered the genes of a soybean plant to produce healthier oil using the cutting-edge editing technique rather than conventional genetic modification.

Seventy-eight farmers planted those soybeans this spring across 17,000 acres in South Dakota and Minnesota, a crop expected to be the first gene-edited crop to sell commercially, beating out Fortune 500 companies.

Seed development giants such as Monsanto, Syngenta AG and DowDuPont Inc have dominated genetically modified crop technology that emerged in the 1990s. But they face a wider field of competition from start-ups and other smaller competitors because gene-edited crops have drastically lower development costs and the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) has decided not to regulate them.

Relatively unknown firms including Calyxt, Cibus, and Benson Hill Biosystems are already advancing their own gene-edited projects in a race against Big Ag for dominance of the potentially transformational technology.

“It’s a very exciting time for such a young company,” said Calyxt CEO Federico Tripodi, who oversees 45 people. “The fact a company so small and nimble can accomplish those things has picked up interest in the industry.”

Gene-editing technology involves targeting specific genes in a single organism and disrupting those linked to undesirable characteristics or altering them to make a positive change. Traditional genetic modification, by contrast, involves transferring a gene from one kind of organism to another, a process that still does not have full consumer acceptance.

Gene-editing could mean bigger harvests of crops with a wide array of desirable traits – better-tasting tomatoes, low-gluten wheat, apples that don’t turn brown, drought-resistant soybeans or potatoes better suited for cold storage. The advances could also double the $15 billion global biotechnology seed market within a decade, said analyst Nick Anderson of investment bank Berenberg.

The USDA has fielded 23 inquiries about whether gene-edited crops need regulation and decided that none meet its criteria for oversight. That saves their developers years of time and untold amounts of money compared to traditional genetically modified crops. Of those 23 organisms, just three were being developed by major agriculture firms.

The newly competitive landscape could foster more partnerships and licensing deals between big and small firms, along with universities or other public research institutions, said Monsanto spokeswoman Camille Lynne Scott. Monsanto – which was recently acquired by Bayer AG – invested $100 million in startup Pairwise Plants this year to accelerate development of gene-edited plants.

North Carolina-based Benson Hill, founded in 2012 and named after two scientists, mainly licenses crop technology to other companies. But it decided to produce its own higher-yielding corn plant because of the low development costs, said Chief Executive Matt Crisp.

Calyxt plans to sell the oil from its gene-edited soybeans to food companies and has a dozen more gene-edited crops in the pipeline, including high-fiber wheat and potatoes that stay fresh longer.

Developing and marketing a traditional genetically modified crop might easily cost $150 million, which only a few large companies can afford, Crisp said. With gene-editing, that cost might fall as much as 90 percent, he said.

“We’re seeing a huge number of organizations interested in gene-editing,” Crisp said, referring to traditional crop-breeding companies, along with technology firms and food companies. “That speaks to the power of the technology and how we’re at a pivotal point in time to modernize the food system.”


Supporters of gene-editing say it allows a higher level of precision than traditional modification.

With CRISPR, one popular type of gene-editing technology used by Syngenta, scientists transfer an RNA molecule and an enzyme into a crop cell. When the RNA encounters a targeted strand of DNA inside the cell, it binds to it and the enzyme creates a break in the cell’s DNA. Then, the cell repairs the broken DNA in ways that disrupt or improve the gene.

(For a graphic on how the Syngenta process works, see: )

Biotech firms hope the technology can avoid the “Frankenfood” label that critics have pinned on traditional genetically modified crops. But acceptance by regulators and the public globally remains uncertain.

The Court of Justice of the European Union ruled on July 25 that gene-editing techniques are subject to regulations governing genetically modified crops.

The ruling will limit gene-editing in Europe to research and make it illegal to grow commercial crops. The German chemical industry association called the decision “hostile to progress.”

U.S. Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue blasted the ruling for enacting unnecessary barriers to innovation and stigmatizing gene-editing technology by subjecting it to the EU’s “regressive and outdated” regulations governing genetically modified crops.

The USDA also has no current plans to regulate gene-editing in animal products, according to a document provided by the agency.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration, however, plans to regulate gene-editing in both plants and animals, FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb wrote in a June blog post. The agency is developing an “innovative and nimble” approach to regulating gene-editing, he wrote, that will aim to ensure its safety for both humans and animals while allowing companies to bring beneficial products to market.

The USDA, by contrast, chose not to regulate gene-edited crops because the process typically introduces characteristics that are “indistinguishable” from those created through traditional plant breeding, which take much longer, USDA Secretary Perdue said in a March statement.

Although there has been no widespread consumer resistance to gene-editing, activists who have long opposed genetically modified crops remain suspicious of any sort of tinkering with DNA. The new technique raises risks of creating undesired changes in the food supply and warrants increased regulation, said Lucy Sharratt, coordinator of the Canadian Biotechnology Action Network.

That kind of opposition is why agribusiness giant Cargill Inc [CARG.UL] is pursuing gene-edited technology with caution, said Randal Giroux, the firm’s vice-president of food safety, quality and regulatory affairs.

Cargill announced in February that it would collaborate with Precision BioSciences to develop healthier canola oil, but is proceeding slowly on agreements to store and transport other companies’ gene-edited crops pending clarity from regulators, Giroux said.

“We really do want to see gene-editing evolve in the marketplace,” Giroux said. “We’re watching to see how consumers adopt these products and react to these products.”


Other major agriculture biotech firms are moving more aggressively, hoping to take advantage of lighter regulation to speed development.

A gene-edited crop may take five years to move from development to commercialization in the United States, compared with a genetically modified crop that could take 12 years, said Dan Dyer, head of seeds development at Syngenta.

The firm is working on better-tasting tomatoes that take longer to spoil and hopes to launch a gene-edited crop in the mid-2020s, said Jeff Rowe, Syngenta’s president of global seeds.

DowDuPont – at a secret location in the U.S. Midwest – is field-testing waxy corn, a variety grown for industrial purposes that has been edited for higher yields. The company plans a commercial launch next spring.

Smaller firms will be nipping at the heels of these massive companies in the race to bring the next generation of genetically engineered foods to market, said Robert Wager, a biology faculty member at Vancouver Island University.

“The lack of USDA-regulated status is a huge game-changer,” he said, “for universities and small startups to enter the market.”

(Reporting by Rod Nickel; Editing by Brian Thevenot)






Exxon, Ben & Jerry’s among buyers of $256 million in political ads on Facebook



By Munsif Vengattil and Paresh Dave

(Reuters) – Facebook Inc’s new searchable database of U.S. political ads reveals that companies such as Exxon Mobil Corp, Ben & Jerry’s and Penzeys Spices are cumulatively spending millions of dollars to encourage voting and influence how Americans vote.

Little data is typically published on specific companies’ online ad spending, but Facebook’s increased transparency about political activity on its service has opened a trove of details ahead of elections on Nov. 6. The social media network showed that $256.4 million was spent on political ads since May.

Alphabet Inc’s Google and Twitter Inc have introduced similar databases. But compared to Facebook, Google covers a narrower set of advertisers and Twitter’s tool is more difficult to use.

The database unveiled by Facebook on Tuesday, called the “Ad Archive Report,” will provide weekly updates on how much advertisers are spending on Facebook ads that specifically, encourage voting or mention political races or issues of national importance.

That policy pulls in ads from official campaigns as well as paid posts containing a political dimension from boutique apparel makers, talk-show hosts and global firms.

Oil giant ExxonMobil has spent more than $2.1 million on Facebook ads since May, more than any corporation beside online petition service Inc. ExxonMobil has promoted a campaign supporting offshore drilling and urged a “no” vote on a Colorado ballot measure that would limit fracking.

The company did not immediately respond to a request to comment.

Ben & Jerry’s, a part of Unilever Plc, has spent more than $401,000 since May on various ads, including one supporting a Florida ballot measure that would let felons vote.

Jay Tandan, the ice cream maker’s U.S. digital marketing manager, said the company welcomed the transparency.

“We’ve long stood up for our company values and used our tools as a business – including monetary expenditure and our social media presence – to support driving the change we hope to see in the world,” Tandan said in an email.

Penzeys, a nationwide retailer of spices based in Wisconsin, has put $773,000 into ads calling on people to vote despite any political frustration they may have following the contentious Senate confirmation of Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh.

“Make your plan to vote, but please give thought to encouraging others to vote, too,” one ad seen by at least hundreds of thousands Facebook accounts said. “Help them put together the ingredients they need for a healthy and satisfying voting experience.”

Smaller firms are aiming to capitalize on the election too. California-based Concealed Online, which sells firearms training for concealed carry permits, has spent $1.76 million encouraging people in Texas, Florida and other states to apply before a possible shift in power brings gun restrictions.

To be sure, Facebook’s transparency has limits. It privately requires government-issued identification from political ad buyers but allows them pseudoanonymity in public disclosures through vague names such as Be Registered LLC.

The tech companies’ political spending databases arrived after the threat of regulation over the lack of disclosure on such spending.

Facebook also has faced a barrage of criticism from users and lawmakers after it said last year that Russian agents used its platform to spread misinformation before and after the 2016 U.S. presidential election, an accusation Moscow denies.

(Reporting by Munsif Vengattil in Bengaluru; Editing by Cynthia Osterman)


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Target’s two-day holiday shipping option beats Amazon, Walmart



By Nandita Bose

NEW YORK (Reuters) – Target Corp, aiming to one-up retail rivals during the upcoming U.S. holiday shopping season, said on Tuesday it was adding more delivery and pickup options for online shoppers to have items shipped to their homes or ready for quick pick-up at local stores.

The Minneapolis-based retailer will offer free two-day shipping on hundreds of thousands of items from Nov. 1 to Dec. 22 with no order minimum or membership required. Target had announced the shipping service in March.

Target’s two-day shipping option is less expensive than Inc’s, which requires an annual subscription fee of $119 under its Prime membership service. Walmart Inc offers free two-day shipping for a minimum order of $35.

Target will also expand its Drive Up Service, which allows customers to place orders online and have packages brought to their cars by the retailer’s employees. It will include nearly 1,000 stores by the end of October, ahead of schedule.

The company currently fulfills about 50 percent of its digital orders from inventory at its stores and plans to increase that to 90 percent.

Target will also offer same-day delivery on 55,000 items with Shipt, a company it bought for $550 million last year, in “hundreds of markets.” Shipt will offer the service in 200 markets, up from 160 announced earlier.

The biggest changes the retailer has made to its business over the past five years have been on order fulfillment, the final mile of delivering orders from a warehouse or store to shoppers’ homes, Target Chief Executive Officer Brian Cornell told reporters at a briefing on Tuesday.

The offerings will be part of the “Target Run and Done” holiday promotional campaign.

Cornell also said Target’s holiday hiring plans are on schedule. The retailer has received over 100,000 applications in a tight labor market and is seeing a 40 percent rise in job applications for its warehouses. In September, Target said it would hire 120,000 seasonal workers at wages starting at $12 an hour. The company has made a commitment to go up to $15 an hour by 2020.

Last week, Target said it will dedicate nearly a quarter of a million square feet of new space to its toy business across 500 stores, seeking more holiday toy sales after retailer Toys “R” Us Inc went bankrupt this year. Target had said its shoppers will be able to shop for more than 2,500 new and exclusive toys.

Rival Walmart Inc has made a similar push for gaining market share in toys.

In August, Target reported its strongest comparable store sales growth in 13 years and said a strong economy lifted customer visits to the most in a decade.

U.S. holiday sales in 2018 will increase by 4.3 percent to 4.8 percent from a year ago, when consumer spending surged to a 12-year high, according to The National Retail Federation.

The trade body said holiday sales growth will be higher than an average increase of 3.9 percent over the past five years but slower than last year’s 5.3 percent gain, when consumer spending grew the most since 2005, boosted by tax cuts.

(Reporting by Nandita Bose in New York; Editing by David Gregorio and Dan Grebler)


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Web performance software company Cloudflare readies IPO -sources



By Liana B. Baker and Carl O’Donnell

(Reuters) – Cloudflare Inc, a U.S. startup whose software makes websites load faster and with greater security, is preparing for an initial public offering (IPO) that could value it at more than $3.5 billion, people familiar with the matter said.

The San Francisco, California-based company is looking to go public in the first half of next year, the sources said this week, joining a string of software and internet firms seeking to tap the stock market and capitalize on strong investor appetite and rich valuations.

The IPO will be led by investment bank Goldman Sachs Group Inc, said the sources, who asked not to be named because the matter is confidential. Exact timing of the IPO has not been finalized, the sources added.

Cloudflare did not respond to requests for comment. Goldman Sachs declined to comment.

Despite a recent pullback in the major indexes of public equity markets, such as the S&P 500, technology firms are increasingly ramping up efforts to tap those markets while interest rates remain low and valuations of private companies are relatively high.

Reuters reported last week that CrowdStrike, a security software firm, had also hired Goldman Sachs to lead an IPO that could value it at more than $3 billion.

Ride-sharing platform Lyft Inc is also working with investment banks to explore a public offering next year, Reuters has reported.

Founded in 2009, Cloudflare provides cloud-based Web services that help improve user experience on websites through actions such as making videos load faster. It also protects against cyber attacks, among other services.

The company runs a so-called content delivery network that competes against services from Akamai Technologies Inc and offerings from Alphabet Inc’s Google and Inc’s cloud computing units.

Its clients include companies such as Zendesk Inc and Cisco Systems Inc. It serves a total of 10 million website domains and the average Internet user touches its services around 500 times per day, according to its website.

In 2015, Cloudflare raised $110 million from investors including Fidelity, Alphabet Inc, Microsoft Inc, Baidu Inc and Qualcomm Inc.

(This version of the story corrects the name of security software firm in paragraph 6 to CrowdStrike instead of CloudStrike)

(Reporting by Liana B. Baker and Carl O’Donnell in New York; Additional reporting by Stephen Nellis in San Francisco; Editing by Matthew Lewis)


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Despite Brazil election turmoil, Facebook stands by WhatsApp limits



By Brad Haynes and Anthony Boadle

SAO PAULO/BRASILIA (Reuters) – Facebook Inc’s <FB.O> messaging service WhatsApp has no plans to change its group messaging limits in Brazil, an executive said on Tuesday, resisting calls from the leading presidential candidate to allow easier forwarding of viral messages.

Jair Bolsonaro, the far-right lawmaker forecast to clinch the race on Sunday, vowed last week to “fight” to let users forward text, audio and video messages to hundreds of contacts on a platform that has become a key political battleground.

With few traditional campaign resources and almost no TV ads until this month, Bolsonaro stormed to the front of a crowded presidential race with an outsized social media presence and grassroots organizing via WhatsApp and other online platforms.

He denied accusations from his leftist rival Fernando Haddad last week that he had asked supporters to fund secret bulk messaging campaigns over WhatsApp, which would be a violation of electoral law.

Advocacy groups concerned with an explosion in the number of hoaxes and misleading propaganda texts and videos on the encrypted platform have called on WhatsApp to lower its forwarding limit in the country from 20 recipients to five, as is the case in India.

“We’re pretty comfortable with that number 20,” Victoria Grand, vice president of policy and communications at WhatsApp, told journalists in Sao Paulo on Tuesday. She called the policy as an “experiment” that “could change over time.”

With just five days to go before the vote, she said there was no way that WhatsApp could change those limits before Brazilians choose their next president. She highlighted efforts to shut down accounts engaged in spamming activity, along with a marketing campaign encouraging users to be skeptical of rumors.

Independent fact checkers and social media experts say that has not been enough to stop a flood of falsehoods and conspiracy theories distorting political debate without public oversight.

“It is very worrying. We are walking on ice, because fake news is manufactured on an industrial scale, but the monitoring and fact checking is a slow and time-consuming process,” said Thiago Tavares, head of SaferNet Brasil, a non-governmental organization that monitors social media for potential crime.

Tavares, a member of an advisory council to Brazil’s top electoral court on social media and the election, is one of many calling for WhatsApp to further restrict forwarded messages that effectively turn the service into a broadcast platform.

Unlike Facebook’s open platform, which the company monitors for abusive content, messages circulating in WhatsApp groups of up to 256 use end-to-end encryption, which keeps them hidden even from the platform’s administrators.

WhatsApp has more than 120 million users in Brazil, a country of nearly 210 million people, rivaling the reach of Facebook’s main platform in one of the company’s biggest global markets.


Opinion polls show Bolsonaro has a lead of around 18 percentage points over Haddad, making a last-minute surge for the leftist candidate seem an increasingly distant possibility.

Haddad, running for the Workers Party (PT), has demanded that he and Bolsonaro debate before Sunday anywhere and in any format, saying Brazil’s democracy will suffer if voters cannot hear and compare their ideas.

But Bolsonaro said in a radio interview on Tuesday that he would not do that, saying that he was not physically fit enough due to a near-fatal stabbing at a rally last month.

Haddad and his allies have said they are gravely concerned that Bolsonaro, a 63-year-old retired Army captain and seven-term congressman who has openly praised Brazil’s 1964-1985 military dictatorship, could fall back into authoritarian ways.

A cadre of high-ranking ex-military brass have supported Bolsonaro and are poised to take powerful roles in government if he wins.

“We are not a threat to democracy. On the contrary, we are the guarantee for liberty and democracy,” Bolsonaro said in the radio interview.

He pointed to the political corruption that grew under successive PT governments and involved every major party as evidence that a Haddad government would allow graft to continue. Haddad has said he would fight against corruption.

While his defense of the dictatorship and offensive comments about women and minorities have angered critics, Bolsonaro has not been hit by corruption charges – a selling point with voters weary of economic crisis and graft scandals.

(Reporting by Brad Haynes in Sao Paulo and Anthony Boadle in Brasilia; Additional reporting by Brad Brooks in Sao Paulo and Pedro Fonseca in Rio de Janeiro; Editing by Frances Kerry and Rosalba O’Brien)



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Apple plans to launch TV subscription service globally: The Information



(Reuters) – Apple Inc is planning to launch its upcoming TV subscription service in more than 100 countries, technology news website the Information reported on Tuesday, citing three people familiar with the situation.

Apple did not immediately respond to Reuters’ request for comment.

(Reporting by Arjun Panchadar in Bengaluru; Editing by Sai Sachin Ravikumar)


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Netflix adds to growing debt pile with $2 billion bond issue



(This version of the Oct. 22 story corrects to say new debt will be senior unsecured notes and removes reference to their priority over other debt in the penultimate paragraph)

By Kate Duguid and Sonam Rai

(Reuters) – Netflix Inc announced on Monday it will tap debt markets for a second time this year, aiming to raise another $2 billion as the streaming video pioneer invests heavily in production of original shows and content acquisition to fend off intensifying competition.

The move, which the company said was aimed at funding a broad spread of activities including paying for new content, spurred falls in both the prices of its bonds and its shares as investors worried about the growing costs of its huge planned investments in years to come.

Netflix Chief Executive Reed Hastings has been explicit about the Los Gatos, California-based company’s plan to fund content acquisition by raising debt. “We’ll continue to finance our capital needs in the high-yield market,” Hastings wrote in his second-quarter shareholder letter.

The move was very well telegraphed by Netflix, said John McClain, portfolio manager at Diamond Hill Capital, which is long in the debt, adding the debt raise “makes sense to us.”

Netflix has said it plans to spend $8 billion on content this year. The company had already spent $6.9 billion on TV shows and movies by the end of its third quarter, suggesting that if they continue apace, their 2018 spending is likely to be closer to $9 billion.

Netflix in April sold $1.6 billion in debt, after raising $1.9 billion in November 2017, bringing their total debt to $8.4 billion, the majority of which has been raised in the past three years. Its long-term debt as a percentage of total capital has roughly doubled to 65 percent since the end of 2014.

Bumper quarterly results last week, driven by gains in international subscribers, again eased concerns that the leader in global streaming is running out of space to expand in developed markets where it can target a mass audience at profitable prices.

But while Netflix still has huge potential in emerging markets like India, some brokerages have begun to draw attention to the overall high cost it is paying as an enterprise to gain more users.

“This is further proof of Netflix’s need for capital to fund short-term operations and content capex,” Richard Miller, founder and managing partner at Gullane Capital, which is short the equity.

“It shows they are further than ever from being free cash flow positive,” he said.

Prices on Netflix’s existing debt dropped across the board on Monday, with the biggest drops in a bond coming due in 2026, down by about 3 cents to 91.5 cents on the dollar.

Its eurobond coming due in 2028 also dropped nearly 3 cents to 91.95 cents on the dollar.

Bearish bets against Netflix’s existing $8.4 billion of junk-rated bonds have more than tripled this year to an all-time high of $347 million, Reuters reported last week.


Some 27 of the 43 brokerage analysts that cover Netflix continue to back the stock with “buy” ratings, compared to just three with “sell” ratings, although its shares have slipped back since last week’s results.

That shows most have now given it the benefit of the doubt on a shortfall in subscriber numbers in the second quarter, and the company has also cut its projection for negative cash flow to closer to $3 billion from a previously projected minus $4 billion.

Moody’s Investors Service has assigned a rating of Ba3 to the new notes, three notches into junk territory, which is the same rating the agency has given the company as a whole.

Standard & Poor’s rated the proposed debt issue at ‘BB-‘ and ‘3’ recovery rating. The recovery rating indicates a meaningful recovery of about 65 percent of principal in the event of a payment default.

It said the rating reflected the company’s improving underlying profit margins over the last 12 months, driven in part by price increases and subscriber growth.

“These factors demonstrate the strength of the company’s business model and its ability to expand globally, increase margins and manage its increasing debt burden,” S&P said.

The new debt will be senior unsecured notes denominated in dollars and euros.

The company is now trading at nearly 115 times forward earnings, making it the second costliest of the FAANG group of major tech bets after’s 160 times, according to Refinitiv data.

(Reporting by Akanksha Rana and Sonam Rai in Bengaluru; Kate Duguid in New York; editing by Patrick Graham and G Crosse)




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