Meet the Innovators: Jud Ward
TPB: Tell us why you founded Ohalo.
JW: I founded Ohalo with a plan to totally reinvent plant breeding. I was invited to speak at the TPB Symposium where I met Dave Friedberg. We were talking about what we can do to improve food security and the importance of innovation in that fight. When we finished, Dave said: Let's get together and create some calories. In addition to investment, TPB offered management resources and, most importantly, a philosophy that recognized the value of molecular genetics and technology in plant breeding. I decided to do my future-self a favor and jump in, so I’d never have to regret passing up this opportunity.
TPB: What were the advantages of pursuing this on your own?
JW: Next generation breeding is more of an engineering discipline that gathers feedback and data from different disciplines. At Ohalo we were able to start from scratch and build out an engineering platform that will allow us to make better decisions and accelerate progress. Large, well-established companies are slow and often resistant to implementation of new technologies or methods. At Ohalo, we can quickly digest new information and execute novel solutions to plant breeding problems. We run massive experiments every week, solve technical problems as a team, and aren’t afraid to get down with exciting, but largely unknown technologies with huge potentials. Stepping outside of an established breeding program allows us to think bigger and transform plant breeding from a craft into a pipeline that enables production of engineered and predictable outcomes.
TPB: What’s the difference between your lab at Ohalo and the experiments Mendel did on peas in the 19th century?
JW: Mendelian genetics are still fundamentally important — what we do is sort of like Mendel’s pea experiments on steroids. Each plant has 30-40,000 genes that are the product of complex evolutionary histories. We’re collapsing the evolutionary time scale of plants, analyzing the genes and applying what we learn to multiple crop species. Mendel was just scratching the surface. We now have over 150 years of knowledge to build on from an astonishing number of smart people that followed Mendel. We have knowledge not only of specific gene function, but also how to model the complex interaction of all those genes to predict plant performance. It’s the pairing of specific gene functions with a quantitative approach that makes Ohalo’s platform special.
TPB: How did you get into plant breeding?
JW: I was a vegetarian as a teenager, which steered me away from dissection in my advanced biology classes. That, and my love for gardening, put me on a trajectory to study plants. After undergrad I got a job working in a tissue culture lab which gave me a lot of exposure to plant breeding. Plants are awesome and really interesting so I got a PhD in plant breeding and genetics. After that, I went back to the company and built out what became their next generation breeding department.
TPB: With a PhD in plant genetics and a big backyard, you must have an amazing garden.
JW: We have a crazy garden with a lot of species. It includes a lot of native plants from the Central California Coast and a lot of others my wife and I just find interesting. Meyer lemons, pumpkins, Cox’s orange-pippin (from the UK) and pink pearl apples (from Watsonville), Montmorency cherries (an old French heirloom variety) and hops. We have numerous carnivorous species and some plants we grow just for the way they smell. One of my favorites is a grape-scented Salvia. Like most people committed to their careers, however, my garden suffers from a lack of attention.
TPB: Tell us about building the team at Ohalo.
JW: Plant breeding is fun but it’s very complicated and our implementation is heavily interdisciplinary. It combines aspects of molecular genetics, biology, biophysics, and math. We look for creative people who can execute on a complex assignment, but who aren’t afraid to try new things. This might sound like a simple ask, but it’s actually relatively rare to find scientists who have strong creativity, are willing to push boundaries, and can execute complex plans. We interview a lot of people looking for that kind of experience and we’ve been lucky to find great people with that balance. We have a hardworking and innovative team that is obsessed with pushing the science forward.
It’s been super fun working with them all. Having started from scratch we’ve had the opportunity to push through all sorts of challenges ranging from the logistics of setting up a new lab to highly technical challenges relating to our core IP in the gene editing space. We’ve pulled together ideas from all the team members to address these challenges and have come up with some really novel solutions.
TPB: How has COVID-19 impacted your work?
JW: As you can imagine, we’ve also had to come up with some creative solutions for team bonding with the COVID pandemic striking halfway through our first year. Part of building culture during a time of crisis has meant creating collective empathy for each other and the sudden, unplanned challenges we face in our home lives with children, illness, and general life-disruption.
The hands-on technical nature of our work has meant we have to show up at the lab to keep our plant lines alive and to make progress on our goals. So we’ve had to normalize protection of one another through rigorous cleaning and use personal protective gear and through sharing the load of odd, sometimes late (or early!) hours at the lab. Our families show-up too — helping us move, build lab equipment, water, set-up our kitchen and common areas. In short, we’ve become the kind of team who put their hearts and souls into breathing life into the business — no one has a back seat.
TPB: Why is the work you’re doing at Ohalo important?
JW: The broader implications of the technology we’re building — increasing the rate at which we can improve plant breeding and providing people with more food — provides a real opportunity for impact, but also a responsibility and an urgency.
There’s probably no one else doing this. If we don’t push it forward, it’s possible nobody will. And if someone else is, we want to be the first. That’s what drives us forward at Ohalo.