Are you a terroir-ist? If so, you’ll understand — along with almost any winegrower — how sexy soil can be. Beneath any field’s surface, a complex interplay of millions of micro-organisms thrives, defining whether a crop flourishes or withers. These tiny organisms — think bacteria, fungi, actinomycetes, algae, nematodes or protozoa — are crucial to how a plant absorbs nutrients from the soil and grows. They enable fertility.
Sexy Soil Science
In the global push for higher crop yields and lower risks of disease or insect infestation, it is nothing new to herald greater understanding of the microbiome in the soil as a potentially sustainable way of doing that, as one farmer repeatedly hammered home to AFN at this year’s Groundswell Conference in the UK, an annual gathering for soil health obsessives.
Yet soil science has always been undermined by its rapidly evolving, vastly complex and microscopic variables, making it hard to know whether or when you are truly getting a soil’s microbial balance right. It traditionally requires precise, high-tech monitoring and sophisticated data crunching to assess accurately what difference that might have on yields or plant health. This has often rendered it more of an academic sideshow to the blunter, simpler mainstream approach of vaguely hoping for the best while opting for intensive tillage or a heavy-handed use of fertilisers. And in fairness to the mainstream, it has led to huge yield boosts over the last several decades. But as wariness over the global trend of soil degradation rises amid today’s intensive farming practices, attention is turning to how groundbreaking advances in data analytics and DNA sequencing can give soil science its chance to shine.
$4m For Biome Makers
Over the last few years, a thriving ecosystem of soil science startups has gained investor attention. (AgFunder, for instance, recently invested in the soil bioinformatics company Trace Genomics.) And just this week, another vote of confidence in the financial viability and global relevance of soil bioinformatics came as the soil science startup Biome Makers closed its $4 million funding Series A funding round. The round was led by two tech-focused, Madrid-based VCs — Seaya Ventures and JME Ventures. Joining the round was also LocalGlobal, the London-based investors behind companies like Transferwise, Zoopla, Improbable, Citymapper, Algolia and Robinhood. “Biome Makers has pioneered a technology solution that not just helps farmers manage better their $60B+ spend in agricultural products and maximise their production, but also enables a more sustainable food production value chain,” says Aris Xenofontos of Seaya Ventures. “Due to modern agricultural practices,” he warns, “we have lost nearly one-third of fertile soil per capita in the last 40 years globally.” He describes Biome Makers as a company “on a journey to build the ‘biological encyclopaedia’ of the soil,” which will “reverse the trend” of soil degradation.
Xenofontos proudly sees this investment as part of his company’s wider sustainability drive: “Seaya Ventures has invested heavily in urban sustainability with investments in Cabify and MOVO,” he wrote in a note sent to AFN. “With this investment, we are expanding our sustainability portfolio into the food production value chain as we continue to see great potential in this area.”
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Creating An En-Soil-Clapaedia
“Our vision is to build a global soil dataset that allows us to partner with the industry to support the development of new biological products for unsolved problems in agriculture,” specifies Biome Maker CEO Adrián Ferrero, in a note sent to AFN. “Soil is the most valuable asset to support life on earth, but we don’t really know how to keep it healthy and global food production suffers from it. We have developed a pioneer technology platform based on DNA sequencing, network-based data analytics and artificial intelligence that allows us to see in the soil what others don’t see. There is a huge opportunity to improve the health and productivity levels of farms globally.”
Soil Into Wine
Ferrero founded Biome Makers in Silicon Valley in 2015 alongside his CSO Alberto Acedo. The pair previously co-founded a digital healthcare startup; both have a scientific background, and have opted to locate the company between Valladolid, Spain, and California’s wine country. After starting with vineyards, Biome Makers has expanded its proprietary ecological computing technology to more crops, seeking to evaluate soil bioactivity to improve sustainable food production.
Back in 2018, the company clinched an AgFunder Innovation Award, and its multidisciplinary team is already working with more than 300 clients to enhance their living soil. This year, Biome Makers also became the first startup to occupy the CoLaborator Suite, a new agricultural innovation space that Bayer Crop Science has enabled with its R&D center in California. The new facilities offer more than 900 square meters of laboratory space and offices and the possibility of using the cultivation areas and greenhouses of Bayer.
This is the second financing round for the company. As AFN previously reported, in fall 2016 it raised $2 million from a group of international investors, including Illumina, the global leading manufacturer of DNA sequencing instruments, through its Illumina Accelerator, as well as investments from Viking Global Investors. The founders of Biome Makers told AFN the latest financing will be used to keep expanding the company’s footprint in the US, Europe and Latin America. Its focus will be on different crop types, as well as new offerings, such as an assessment system for agri products. Back at the vineyards, where Biome Makers began, there are promising noises from one of their clients. “Biome Makers has helped to check soil bioactivity allowing us to optimize our farming practices and increasing its resilience”, says Oscar Renteria, CEO of Renteria Vineyard Management, a management company supporting wineries in Napa.