At an old shoe factory on the outskirts of Paris, new life is taking shape. Behind a heavy door, a bank of PCR machines multiplies plant DNA molecules by hundreds of billions every few hours. Inside a gleaming white chamber, tiny emerald shoots are coaxed from single cells, unfurling in millimeters over a period of months.
“It’s like a biologist’s wet dream,” says Patrick Torbey, chief technology officer of Neoplants, a Parisian startup taking a multimillion-dollar punt on the air we breathe. Torbey grabs one of the small, plastic receptacles from inside the chamber and squints at his verdant creation: Nestled in a jelly-like growing medium, it looks like a canapé—or, possibly, the future.
This is the Neo P1—a genetically modified houseplant that the company claims could help combat indoor air pollution. P1 is a modified form of golden pothos—more commonly known as devil’s ivy—one of the world’s most ubiquitous and easy-going houseplants. Although its yellow-green hues appear familiar, P1’s DNA has been tweaked to enhance its ability to extract volatile organic compounds (VOCs) from the air, including formaldehyde, benzene, toluene, ethylbenzene, and xylene, which are prevalent in indoor spaces.
These genetic adjustments also—crucially in the case of the P1—allow the plant to convert the VOCs it absorbs into substances like sugar and CO2 that it can use to carry on growing. Once it’s outgrown the agar, P1 will be planted in soil enriched with biochar (a common gardening additive) in a pot designed to maximize airflow, and sold with a pack of three Power Drops (bacteria, to be added to the soil each month to help the plant metabolize the VOCs it absorbs). Due on shelves later this year, P1 will retail for $179, or around £145—roughly 10 times the cost of an ordinary golden pothos plant, or comparable to that of a keenly priced Honeywell HEPA purifier.
So far, Torbey, who has a PhD in genome editing, and his cofounder Lionel Mora, an ex-Google product marketer, have collected $20 million in venture funding from firms including True Ventures and Collaborative Fund.
Much of the money has gone toward fitting out Neoplants’ new space on the north side of the French capital. Over the past two years, it’s been stripped and gutted, whitewashed, and then refitted to spec with every gadget Torbey could tick off his wishlist. There are mass spectrometers, fume cupboards, and growth chambers. Magnetic stirrers fidget next to cabinets stocked with glass flasks and petri dishes.