The pioneer: Steve Bobzin, Director of Technology, CERES

The concept: “Super crops” that produce high yields with far less water and nitrogen fertilizer. Adapting technologies from the human genome project, CERES identified traits within sorghum, switchgrass, miscantis, and other biofuel crops that enable the plants to use nitrogen and water more efficiently. Test crops grown in greenhouse laboratories have gotten as much as double the yield per acre for each crop, and the same yield per acre using half the nitrogen. These super crops could produce cheap cellulosic biofuels or be used as a biomass feedstock in power plants — competing with coal as well as oil.

The payout: $4,989,144.00

The goal:  To reproduce laboratory yields in the fields. Bobzin is testing four genetic traits in three crops (sorghum, switchgrass and miscantis) on roughly 10-acre plots in Arizona, Georgia, Tennessee and Texas — states with different climate challenges. If the three-year experiment reproduces greenhouse results, they’ll begin testing the seeds on larger plots in more places, putting the innovation on track for commercial-scale development.

The hurdles: Mother Nature. Transitioning from the controlled greenhouse environment to the great outdoors introduces a range of risks: weather, humidity, insects, soil moisture, wind, and mold, to name a few. These stresses could inhibit the genetically tweaked traits from functioning as well as they did in the greenhouse experiments.

The promise: “I have spent my entire career with a desire to do things that would improve life for society, and the promise here is greater than any other innovation I’ve worked for. We could replace oil, we could significantly offset the use of coal with homegrown crops — providing energy security and freeing ourselves from dependence on the Middle East while reinvigorating the rural economy.”