A new class of crop inputs based on the soil microbiome have emerged in recent years. They have the potential to disrupt the agriculture industry by replacing traditional chemical inputs, which have created a number of serious environmental issues like herbicide-resistant weeds and pests, fertilizer runoff that chokes aquatic life in the Gulf of Mexico, and poor soil health due to runoff and the loss of organic matter.
For the most part, however, farmers have been skeptical about whether bio-based products can provide a viable alternative that gives them the same yields without eating into their margins. Some farmers are starting to dabble in the bio-based input world by using a combination of biologics and synthetics.
For 3Bar Biologics founder and CEO Bruce Caldwell, cracking open the rapidly growing group of biologic products could be as simple as pushing a button.
“The big issue with this sector, and why it is not growing fast enough, is that the products need to perform better in the field. Consistency and in-field performance are the industry’s Achilles’ Heel. The issue with living products like biologics is that our supply chain is designed for synthetic chemicals that can withstand long storage times and rapidly changing temperatures,” Caldwell told AgFunderNews. “One way to overcome this is with cold storage, but biologics would require cold storage all the way to the field, which just isn’t cost effective or practical.”
To address this barrier to adoption, 3Bar has teamed up with microbial input startup Pivot Bio that’s created a nitrogen-producing microbial product called PROVEN that fixates nitrogen from the atmosphere and secretes it at the corn crop’s root zone to be used when the plant needs it. Pivot Bio estimates that if farmers adopted PROVEN on 35% of US corn acres, it could reduce or prevent nearly 20,000 metric tons of nitrous oxide emissions. This is equivalent to taking roughly 1.5 million cars off the road by its account. It may also prevent up to 500,000 metric tons of nitrates from leaching into waterways.
3Bar’s technology is a delivery system that allows a farmer to cultivate a fresh batch of microbes right on the farm or at home. By pushing a button on the outside of the box, the farmer begins the fermentation process. Everything the microbes need to grow is located inside and the farmer does not have to perform any contamination protocols like sanitizing his or her hands before starting the process.
Within 24-48 hours, the microbes are ready for use but they can be kept inside the box for up to three weeks. This is a key window for farmers who may have a sudden change of plans due to on-farm emergencies or a sudden unpredicted change in the weather. Pivot is currently selling the product direct to farmers and it can be mixed with many traditional inputs like herbicides and fertilizers without compromising its efficacy.
3Bar has also developed its own microbial product called BioYield that it is selling through traditional distribution channels like local coops. The boxes come in a range of sizes from a 3-liter package that covers 40 acres to a 10-liter package that covers 120 acres. The smaller size is perfect for farmers who want to conduct a trial run of a biologic product on their acreage. The product can be mixed with a number of other inputs like fertilizers, fungicides, and herbicides without compromising its efficacy.
According to company trials, the cost comes out to roughly $5 per acre and results in a 7 to 8 bushel yield increase per acre, or $30. This is a relatively low priced input considering that it only takes 2 bushels for the product to pay for itself.
“What we have done is design a product that optimizes the performance of the microbe as opposed to trying to fit it within our current supply chain or forcing it into a seed coating as we have always done,” he says. “We need to treat living products in a different way and when we do that it will revolutionize agriculture. We will see living products like biologics displace synthetics in fertilization and other ranges of applications like pesticides.”
Caldwell’s background is in consumer packaged goods with over 30 years of experience at Proctor & Gamble followed by 7 years of experience as the head of R&D at Scott’s Miracle-Gro. The company tried for several years to launch a living product but was mostly unsuccessful according to his account.
“The concept of growing microbes on the farm has been tried before; it has not been executed in a manageable way for the end user. This approach opens the door for numerous microbes that have been discovered but never successfully commercialized. When I founded the company four years ago, I found a library of microbes at Ohio State with a wide range of positive benefits for corn and soybeans, but they are a type of bacteria that cannot withstand drying out in high temperatures, which means they can’t be a seed coating.”
“We’re pleased to work with 3Bar to deliver our inaugural product to farmers,” said Karsten Temme, CEO & co-founder of Pivot Bio, in a statement announcing the partnership. “Our product is now shipping to farmers across the Midwest who are looking for a reliable source of nitrogen that improves their bottom line and helps increase the sustainability of their operation.”
3Bar, which raised a $2 million seed round in August 2017, has a few other partnerships in the works that Caldwell cannot disclose at this time. If the delivery mechanism is successful, it could open the floodgates to a host of bio-based inputs for a wide range of crops.
Investors are pouring substantial funds into the ag biotech sector, which includes microbiome-based products like Pivot Bio’s PROVEN. The startup has raised nearly $90 million in venture funding to date, including a $70 million Series B round in October 2018 led by Breakthrough Energy Ventures.
Other recently funded startups in the space include bio-based produce shelf-life extending product developer Apeel Sciences, Gates-backed plant microbiome research company AgBiome, computational biology and gene editing backed crop genomics platform creator Benson Hill Biosystems, recently IPO’d gene editing startup Calyxt, and biological and plant nutrient inputs developer Concentric Ag Corporation (formerly Inocucor Technologies).
In 2018, ag biotech startups secured the largest amount of investment at $1.5 billion, beating out precision ag and innovative foods like alternative proteins, according to AgFunder’s AgriFood Tech Funding Report 2018, which you can download here.