Mr. Marcus Meadows-Smith, CEO, BioConsortia
BioConsortia is moving its first products into registration phase five years after establishing its globalheadquartersinDavis,California. BioConsortia is focused on excellence in R&D. The company’s proprietary R&D platform with its method to identify and develop biostimulant and biopesticide products, from both individual and teams of microbes, has been the driving force behind the company’s ability to raise $45 million in funding. Company CEO Marcus Meadows-Smith sat down with New Ag International/2BMonthly to outline the next stage of the company’s evolution. “The excitement in BioConsortia comes from our cutting- edge research, key areas of our platform and our strong progress across the board,” said Meadows-Smith, who joined BioConsortia in 2014 and was at the helm of AgraQuest when it was acquired by Bayer CropScience in 2012.
Based in Davis, California, BioConsortia sees itself as an R&D company, making products for other companies to distribute. It has raised $45 million in funding from Khosla Ventures and Otter Capital. “Spending around $10 million per year on R&D, and the ability to develop microbial products with superior efficacy and higher consistency, puts us in a very select group of well-funded and successful startups working in agriculture,” says Meadows-Smith. Currently the staff roll includes 40 scientists and 13 PhDs.
So what’s in the pipeline?
BioConsortia has two biocontrol products that will enter EPA registration in 2019. Both are new biofungicides. The registration process should be 21 months, says Meadows- Smith, but taking a slightly cautious approach he expects them to be approved within two years. On the biofertilizer and biostimulant side, there are four products that are entering registration at state level. This process is faster than for biocontrol products, so sales could even occur next year. Once the regulation hurdles are cleared, all six products are initially aimed at the US market.
But when it comes to the business of moving into the commercial arena, Meadows-Smith is clear that BioConsortia should play to its strengths – in R&D. They will leave the distribution to someone else. Again, keeping things focused. If you have a “me-too” product, by which Meadows-Smith means a version of a product already on the market, then you need a large marketing department.
“We are now at a point where we are starting to seek distribution partners,” he said. In terms of production,
BioConsortia has the potential and experience for scale- up.
The cornerstone of BioConsortia’s R&D effort is its advanced microbial selection (AMS) technology. It was launched in 2009 by New Zealand company BioDiscovery, which now has BioConsortia as its parent company. AMS is a process that has been likened to the “plant breeding process” due to its iterative process.
The objective is to capture samples of the microbiome as it evolves under selective pressure, with plants selecting the most beneficial microbes at each round of the process, thereby evolving the plants’ microbiome and accumulating the key microbes. The microbes from high-performing plants under both stressed and ideal growing conditions are sampled, using BioConsortia’s patented technique.
The microbiome analysis identifies the key individual microbes and teams of microbes through machine learning. This can be used to identify specific plant associated, beneficial microbes, and in this sense is the reverse to how microbial research might usually operate – using microbes from highest performing plants, rather than taking microbes from the environment and then looking to see if it might benefit a plant.
Computing power is then required to find the co- occurrence of microbes that work together. This is the origin of the name of BioConsortia – a microbial consortium is a group of two or more microbial groups that can live symbiotically. Genomic sequencing, a task that has increased in speed and lowered in cost dramatically over the last decade, is also used in the final steps to help build consortia from the best leads.
BioConsortia became the parent company to its New Zealand subsidiary in 2014, moving the headquarters to Davis in the same year. It now has a microbial library of 61,000 strains derived from the AMS process and isolated from high performing plants grown under a variety of biotic (pathogen, nematode and insect pressure) and abiotic (fertilizer/nutrient, salt, drought and temperature) stresses.
All the new products in the pipeline were developed from BioConsortia’s AMS technology and are both individual microbes and microbial consortia. Meadows-Smith says they are looking at single microbe products with an eye to the registration process for countries in the EU.
The biofertilizer and biostimulant products are designed for yield increase on top of best agronomic practice, being applied either as seed treatments for row crops, or drench products for high value fruit and vegetables. Ultimately, this is what growers are looking for to improve yields, quality and profitability, says Meadows-Smith. He himself is a grower, running a vineyard and fruit farm with his wife in California.
BioConsortia is also looking to address water-use efficiency.
“Initially we were focused on extreme conditions and drought tolerance,” says Meadows-Smith, but he adds that even in a good season there will be periods of water stress and BioConsortia’s biostimulants can help moderate the impact.
The biocontrol products are fungicides being applied as foliar, seed treatment or drench. They will also have increasing yield properties. “We run the trials both ways,” says Meadows-Smith. In the absence of disease, the product can still produce a notable increase in yield.
For BioConsortia, this is important. The bar is now higher for new entrants, says Meadows-Smith. A 10 bushel per acre (bu/ac) yield increase is now expected off a 200 bu/ac starting point, whereas some years ago the target was lower and microbials were only expected or seen to work in stressed and low yielding areas.
“We target yield increases on top of best practice and high yielding fields,” he says. “Previously, good was
good enough. Biocontrol is now trying to be the best of the best.”
Certainly, California is a high performing ecosystem for ag-input discovery. “There is money in the hands of people who want to help people, business and the environment,” he notes. “They invest in the game- changers.”
To get funding, though, you need to bring something new. Microbials with efficacy and consistency of chemistry or nitrogen fixation by non-leguminous crops, such as corn, would fit the bill. “When you are funded by venture capital you are challenged to come up with the breakthroughs.”
Investors look for breakthrough technologies and a high return on their investment. Having led the transformation of AgraQuest into the R&D leader in 2008-2012, and then its subsequent sale for $425 million plus milestones, Meadows-Smith and his team have demonstrated the ability to deliver for investors.
So where are the biggest returns to be made in future – biocontrol or biostimulants?
Meadows-Smith suspects biostimulants have the larger growth potential, by referencing the comparative sizes of the fertilizer market against the crop protection market, which is roughly three times larger by value, and the opportunity to solve the environmental impacts of fertilizer lost to the environment as run-off and leaching. The tasks to be done with biocontrol are to eliminate inconsistency, improve efficacy and best practices. There’s that focus, again.