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Rania
Khalaf

Using data and AI to create more sustainable crops

Dr. Rania Khalaf

CIO & CDO, Inari

Growing up in Lebanon during the civil war, Rania Khalaf learned firsthand how fragile our world is. At age 17, she was accepted at MIT, where she earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees, followed by a doctorate in computer science at the University of Stuttgart. Khalaf spent two decades in a distinguished career at IBM and in 2021 started a new adventure as chief information and data officer at Inari Agriculture, Inc., a biotech startup working toward a more sustainable future for the global food system.

Can you give us a high-level view of Inari’s mission?

Inari is the SEEDesign company. We aim to unlock the full potential of seeds to make agriculture more sustainable for people and the planet. Using unique predictive design techniques and advanced multiplex gene editing tools, we are developing seeds that will have a truly nature-positive impact — for example, by drastically reducing water and nitrogen use while producing radically higher yields. To have the broadest, most immediate positive impact, our current focus is on corn, soybeans and wheat, which together account for over 500 million acres in the Americas alone.

How groundbreaking is this work?

Our goals are bold: crops that use 40% less fertilizer and 40% less water and have 10–20% increases in yield. To put that last point into perspective, the industry currently sees annual yield improvements of roughly 1% a year.

The genetic systems that will make achieving these goals possible are incredibly complex — not attributable to a single gene, but to complex gene networks. Some time back, it was thought that editing such complex networks — what’s referred to as multiplex gene editing — would be impossible. But we’ve proven it is not. To date, we have successfully multiplexed thousands of plants. This is really exciting.

What is your role as chief information and data officer?

My background is in foundational distributed computing, machine learning and cloud computing. At Inari, I apply these technologies to a new domain. I am creating our data and AI strategy and platforms, furthering our predictive design capabilities. The focus is on using knowledge-driven and data-driven approaches to accelerate discovery for gene-editing designs and improve product design and development. We started by using public data sources and data from collaborators in academia and industry. But now, with crops in the field that we have edited, as we track these plants, we create our own data. The real value lies in interleaving this data with all the expert knowledge. It’s a computational challenge because of the complexity of the gene network. The genomes of plants are far more complex than in humans. For example, the differences between two lines of corn are greater than the differences between a human and a chimpanzee.

What inspired you to join Inari?

When this opportunity came up, I thought, I have just one lifetime. How will I use it? What impact can I have? For me personally, growing up in the Middle East made very clear the importance of food security, water and climate. So I was drawn to Inari’s vision, but as a mentor once told me, “Vision without execution is hallucination.” Inari has significant backing, the addressable market is massive, and the team has decades of proven results in agriculture, science, biotech and business. And as a tech junkie at heart, I was drawn to creating and using two cutting-edge technologies: AI and CRISPR.

I was also drawn to Inari’s values, including boldness, innovation, collaboration and diversity. You immediately see it in the depth of talent in the company’s leadership team. The CEO, chief science officer, chief product officer and now chief information and data officer have incredible track records — and we are women from Asia, South America, Europe and the Middle East.

That seems like an adventurous career move.

Trying to do something that’s never been done before is definitely an adventure, as is entering the worlds of agriculture and biotech for the first time. But I’m a veteran in compute, data and machine learning, and that continues to be my focus at Inari.

Going back to Inari’s core values that I mentioned a little bit ago, this company welcomes boldness. Long before I joined Inari, I actually did a lot of extreme sports, and you learn quickly that being bold takes discipline, training and trust — trust in your team, your equipment, your experience. You verify that the carabiners are properly closed, the air tank is in fact open, the lines are not tangled. Then you go for it — and more often than not, it is amazing.

Can you give an example of creativity at Inari?

At Inari, when looking at how we go from data to knowledge and insight at scale, we brought into one room people across our pipeline, from genetic design, transformation, greenhouse and field — engineers, plant breeders, bioinformaticians. Together, we were able to track what happens with our plants step-by-step and how the data flows. This really opened up our minds as each person thought about what is happening to the left and right of them, the information they produce that might be useless to their individual tasks but super valuable to someone two steps downstream. It helped us figure out the way forward with our data platform — how to flow data in order to get better insights and designs.

What inspires creativity in you personally?

I think having a “growth mindset” is critical. Always keeping an open mind, knowing where your gaps are, learning new things, and leaning into people who know more than you do. The idea of a lone creative inventor has been popularized, but I believe invention is a team sport and inventions with impact lie on the contributions of many more than we often realize. Maybe it’s really about interconnectivity: connecting existing concepts, different ways of thinking.

And I think it’s about breaking down your assumptions — understanding them and thinking of them in new ways. People sometimes have a laugh because in these big meetings I can’t sit still. So I sometimes move to sit on the floor or on a table or stand in a corner and see things from a new perspective. It’s like the word games where you scramble the letters to see fresh patterns. Or even just looking at the whiteboard from a different place. When things seem difficult, try to rearrange them. You just try to keep your mind elastic, that’s when new ideas come up.

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