Lakey has been developing Orion’s technique since 2003. Oil palm was just one of the many crops the company was working on at the time. In late 2011, he discovered the gene that controls the shell thickness of oil palm fruit, the company’s most successful find yet.
Orion only recently moved into the distribution phase, which sends Lakey to Malaysia on a recurring basis. But most of his work takes place in St Louis.
He says it is important to have Orion in the Midwest, and to be close to the McDonnell Genome Institute at Washington University.
“We are the heart of agriculture in the United States. We wanted to be in an area where agriculture was really the primary economic focus. All these massive food companies… it’s a big food economy.”
So how does it work? Growers will put a new seedling into a pot, instead of the ground. When it sprouts its first leaf, the growers will use one of Orion’s punch tabs (Pix 2) to collect part of the leaf and send it to Orion’s labs.
There, the lab technicians take the hundreds of samples and determine if they have the thin shell strain that will provide high yield. They send back the results, and the growers know which trees to put in the ground and which to throw out. There is an almost perfect accuracy in this process, Lakey says.
Orion is now in the process of selling its methods to growers in Malaysia. It’s estimated that if even 1% of the low-yielding trees can be eliminated, Malaysia’s annual Gross National Income would increase by US$251 million.
Not surprisingly, the breakthrough has garnered the local company some international attention. Orion was named a ‘disruptive company’ by the BBC, meaning its innovation is likely to change the rules of an industry.
“Our one and only commitment is to DNA technologies and to utilise them to improve healthcare and food production,” Lakey says.
River Front Times, Aug 1, 2016
This is an edited version of the article.