Business Focus: BioConsortia discovers good microbes for best ag yields

By Diane Parro

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I hear people say Davis is a sleepy little town. No way. It’s full of discovery and innovation — like what’s going on at BioConsortia.

The biotech company’s research develops a “consortia” of beneficial microscopic organisms, helping seeds turn into crops that thrive ­— even under stressful conditions.

On Feb. 21, Mayor Robb Davis and I got a chance to visit the company’s global headquarters, at 1940 Research Park Drive, Suite 200. We met with CEO Marcus Meadows-Smith and Christina Huben, senior vice president of operations and administration.

Davis Mayor Robb Davis, right, pauses as Carly Tyer does a colonization assay of soy microbes on Feb. 21 at BioConsortia, while CEO Marcus Meadows-Smith, left, looks on. Wendy Weitzel/Courtesy photo

Meadows-Smith explains it like this: “We look for beneficial microbes that will help a plant grow and be high-yield.” With all those beneficial bacteria and fungi surrounding the seed when it germinates, “it’s the plant equivalent of being born in Davis, California, versus Syria. It gives it that great start in life.”

Huben and Meadows-Smith came from AgraQuest, a former Davis biotech company that researched microorganisms for pest management. Bayer CropScience purchased AgraQuest in 2012.

Meadows-Smith and Huben then began work with private equity firms to bring New Zealand-based BioDiscovery to the U.S. The New Zealand company made a breakthrough in 2009 in the microbe selection process. In 2014, Huben and Meadows-Smith helped establish a new company, BioConsortia, in 2014, based on the proprietary process. (The name BioDiscovery was taken.)

Having made roots in Davis, Meadows-Smith pushed to establish global headquarters in Davis. They are happy to be in one of the major ag centers of the world, with beautiful weather, and access to 350 different crops within a 100-mile radius.

“We love Davis and the whole ecosystem of Northern California,” said Meadows-Smith, who raised his children here and owns a vineyard outside of town.

“People come here, and they like to stay,” he said. “It helps that we are surrounded by great universities like Davis, Berkeley and Stanford, and have a high-quality (elementary and secondary) education system. It makes it easier to hire and retain people.”

That wasn’t always the case. When at AgraQuest in 2008, he said it was difficult to attract talent from outside the area. Today, there are more biotech companies in the region doing similar work, so if one job doesn’t work out, parents don’t have to uproot their families.

Mayor Davis said it’s part of the richness of this town: “It’s providing an ecosystem for people to stay and move around. That’s an important part of our community.”

BioConsortia has 28 employees in Davis, eight in Auckland, New Zealand, and one in the Midwest. It plans to add three to five more high-level staffers in the next year. Still in the research and development phase, it will grow more once its products are fully developed and ready to market.

Its labs include a large plant processing area, several growth rooms for controlled environment studies, as well as microbiology and molecular biology labs. All are equipped with tools for genetic and phenotypic analysis. It has nine patents or patent applications related to its selection methods.

What it needs is large greenhouse space, which is scarce in Davis, they report.

The company’s work to improve plant traits uses diverse communities of bacteria and fungi. Meadows-Smith said they help plants “create a symbiotic relationship with teams of microbes that perform complementary functions,” leading to increased ag yields.

“Plants are put under stress, and there are microbes that can actually help with that,” he said, referring to stressors like drought, heat, cold and salt. The focus is on corn, wheat, soybean, sorghum, tomatoes, leafy vegetables and turf.

Researchers compare and apply multiple stressors to develop seed treatments that are safe for organic crops and improve commercial ag production. Customers likely would be seed and fertilizer companies, with BioConsortia’s product enhancing and reducing the need for nitrogen, phosphate, potassium and sulfur treatments.

“After we have the best-performing plants, we can replicate generation after generation, that’s when we then go through a process of elimination,” Meadows-Smith said. “What’s the smallest number of individual species of microbes that’s generating this change in the plant? … Those are put on the seed treatment.”

With climate change, it’s more important than ever to find ways to give our food supply a head start — and produce more food on the same amount of land. It’s one of the many innovations coming out of this “sleepy little town.”

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