Portland startup Phylos Bioscience raises funds to bring a scientific approach to the cannabis industry

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The Phylos Galaxy, an interactive genetic map of cannabis strains, was the result of collaboration between Phylos Bioscience and the American Museum of Natural History. (Click for interactive graphic)

When Mowgli Holmes moved back to his home state of Oregon in 2013, the cannabis industry was beginning to take off in a big way — but as a molecular and evolutionary biologist, Holmes was surprised by the lack of research into cannabis as an agricultural plant.

“This new industry was taking shape really rapidly all around me, and it had no science driving it,” Holmes said. “All the basic science that we have for every other crop just doesn’t exist, and people are just running with zero knowledge.”

Holmes and co-founder Nishan Karassik started PhylosBioscience in 2014 to fill that gap in understanding. A new investment round will help the company expand its infrastructure in support of a new phase in its development. Phylos has raised $1.4 million of a planned $5.5 million round, according to a Securities and Exchange Commission filing.

“We’re going to be getting an Oregon State cannabis research license, and starting to do the basic genetics research that will help breeders develop new plant varieties,” Holmes said.

Phylos has spent the last two years developing tools to help cannabis breeders and growers learn about the genetics of their crop, including the Phylos Genotype, a tool that catalogs the DNA of  individual plants. Holmes said a commercial version of the tool is planned for release in two weeks.

The startup also partnered with the American Museum of Natural History on the Cannabis Evolution Project, a two-year research project which tested the DNA of thousands of cannabis samples to produce an evolutionary map of the crop. The project also resulted in the Phylos Galaxy, an interactive visualization of the data, including the genetic relationship between cannabis strains.

“We tried to make it so that the basic visualization of the genetic structure of the population would be interactive, so people could play with it and zoom around in it and learn from it,” Holmes said.

Holmes also pointed out that, unlike in many agricultural industries, genetic information can be as valuable and interesting to a consumer as it is to growers and breeders. Holmes now serves as Phylos Bioscience’s chief science officer, and Karassik as its CEO. The startup employs 15 people at its headquarters in downtown Portland.

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