Breakthrough Energy Ventures, the $1 billion fund focused on accelerating the world’s transition to clean energy, has invested in the $70 million Series B round for Pivot Bio. Pivot Bio is an agtech startup producing microbes that are applied to crops to make nitrogen available to them and could reduce the use of synthetic fertilizers.
Singapore state fund Temasek also joined the round as a new investor. Noticeably absent from the investor line-up was Bayer Growth Ventures, the post-merger version of Monsanto Growth Ventures, which invested in Pivot Bio at Series A. Last year, Bayer created a joint venture with microbe-farming group Ginkgo Bioworks — Joyn Bio — to find microbes that might also reduce the need for nitrogen fertilizer, according to a press release.
Breakthrough Energy Ventures is backed by a consortium of leading entrepreneurs, investors, finance institutions and corporations including Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, Richard Branson, Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg, George Soros, Michael Bloomberg, and Salesforce founder Marc Benioff.
“Pivot Bio is addressing one of the largest sources of GHGs on the planet – the potent nitrous oxide and carbon dioxide emissions associated with the use of synthetic fertilizers,” said Carmichael Roberts of Breakthrough Energy Ventures. “We’ve been extremely impressed with the team, their differentiated approach to crop nutrition, and their commitment to creating value for the farmer. This company has an opportunity to make a meaningful positive difference for our environment while disrupting the $200 billion fertilizer market.”
According to Pivot Bio, a small portion of existing chemical fertilizers decompose into nitrous oxide, which is a greenhouse gas that’s 300 times more potent than CO2 and responsible for about 5% of global warming. “Worldwide fertilizer-linked pollution significantly contributes to the more than 500 dead zones: places so toxic that nothing lives. One of the largest is where the Mississippi
River empties into the Gulf of Mexico,” reads a press release.
The microbes in Pivot Bio’s debut product PROVEN fixate nitrogen from the atmosphere and secrete it at the corn crop’s root zone for the plant to use. When there is ample nitrogen in the soil, the genes responsible for that fixating property are turned off; heavy use of synthetic fertilizer therefore turns off those genes.
The microbes in PROVEN are naturally-occurring and already present in the plant microbiome – the environment in and around the root zone, according to Karsten Temme, CEO of Pivot Bio.
“Only a fraction of the plant microbiome has the genetics for N fixation so we focused on being able to rediscover that fraction by digging through the plant roots to find those microbes already living in symbiosis with plants,” he told AgFunderNews.
PROVEN can be mixed with other inputs such as liquid insecticide, for example, to be applied along with other crop inputs and “sit on top of existing practices,” according to Temme. In the first instance, this means application at the time of planting. “We’ve tested broadly to make sure our products are compatible with several other products as we want to ensure we’re delivering living microbes right at the time that the plant forms its first roots; if that happens, symbiosis will kick off.”
The ability to mix PROVEN with other crop input products opens up a range of distribution options for Pivot Bio, which is keen to partner with a range of different companies, inputs providers, and channels on getting its microbes into the hands of as many growers as possible, according to Temme.
Responding to a question about the reputation of microbial products among farmers, who have been wary of biological alternatives in the past, concerned salesmen were trying to sell them inactive products or “snake oil,” Temme said that data-driven communication should lead grower discussions.
“Over the last 100 years, it’s been phenomenal what the industry has done with chemistry and the benefit those products are brought. This is the century we will see biology shine, and what we’ve found is that by being able to take the microbe and understand how it works from a true mechanism perspective, and watch it colonize the root systems of plants, that data-driven approach really facilitates strong communication with growers and provides the foundation of a long-lasting relationship. If that’s the way a lot of the other biologicals in the industry today can be brought to the marketplace, that should bode well across the entire industry.”
Through its “Intent to Pivot” program, Pivot Bio has partnered with a range of growers to test its microbes for five growing seasons, across over 100 locations that comprise 47 soil types, and found broad evidence of the microbes colonizing root zones in all conditions.
“We implement many sustainability practices on our farm. Being part of Pivot Bio’s Intent to Pivot 2018 pilot program was a good fit with how we manage our farm,” said Iowa-based farmer Tim Couser of Couser Farms in a press release. “This product has the potential to make positive changes on our family’s farm, and we are pleased to add Pivot Bio PROVEN TM to our program.”
While Temme would not confirm whether the aim of PROVEN was to reduce or even replace chemical fertilizers, he said that trials had shown the ability to get the same results with the product versus 25 pounds a nitrogen fertilizer. “Farmers we’ve worked with are already talking about how they’ve changed their fertilizer management strategy and how they use,” said Temme.
As the first nitrogen-producing microbial product available for U.S. corn farmers, Pivot Bio PROVEN is already approved for use in states that represent about half of the US corn-producing market. Additional state approvals are also in process for 2018 and 2019.
The new funding will support the launch of PROVEN in 2019 as well as support expanded research and development for the company’s second-generation product, a seed treatment option, and the development of nitrogen-producing microbes for other crops beyond corn, including wheat and rice. The company also plans to introduce its products into other markets such as Brazil, Argentina, and Canada.
Pivot Bio’s Series A investors included Data Collective, Monsanto Growth Ventures, Prelude Ventures, and Spruce Capital Partners. And the company received early support from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the National Science Foundation, and the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency.