The biologics space is growing at a rapid space. Players are taking a variety of approaches to unlock the potential behind the microscopic organisms that dwell below the soil’s surface. From using microbes as unique fingerprints for traceability to combating foodborne illness, microbes are popping up everywhere in the food supply chain.
One of the most common targets for bio-based technologies is the crop inputs space. A number of startups are attempting to identify, control, and package microbes that can help plants use fertilizer more efficiently, endure drought stress more successfully, or simply boost yields. Each company is taking a slightly different approach to how its harnessing the power of microbes. For Boost Biome, the secret lies not so much in the microbes themselves, but in how the potentially one trillion species of microbes on earth interact with one another.
“We think there are at least three benefits of products with microbes that actually work together,” Boost Biomes CEO and co-founder Jamie Bacher tells AFN. “If they’re working together, it could lead to a longer-lasting impact on the environment. It could be more effective because they’re not just working in parallel but working together and with other microbes already present in the soil. Finally, when you have multiple modes of action, it lowers the risk that the pathogen develops resistance to it. That’s incredibly important for farmers.” When referring to microbes that actually work together, Bacher is referencing microbes that acknowledge each other’s presence instead of simply existing in close proximity.
The San Francisco-based startup has just completed a $5 million Series A funding led by global crop nutrition company Yara International with participation from existing investors Viking Global and Y Combinator. The funding will go towards helping the startup continue commercializing its flagship biofungicide while also developing a broader product pipeline. Boost is working with an undisclosed group of partners in this endeavor and plans to work with distributors to get its product into growers’ hands. Some of the funds will also be used to continue to bolster its technology platform.
Three microbe approaches
The way Bacher sees it, there are essentially three approaches to how startups are discovering microbes.
“The first is using informatics to statistically understand interactions and to make predictions about the ecologies of these microbes. The second is screening microbe by microbe, which is a very effective process used many times but it doesn’t really account for the complexity of the microbial environment. The last approach is using crops themselves as Petri dishes and finding the bulk groups of microbes that have some particular use or effect on the crop,” Bacher explains. “We are leveraging the power of ecology rather than biology. We’re the first ones directly observing ecosystems.”
As part of the funding announcement, Boost also announced that it has entered into a Joint Development Agreement with Yara to tackle phosphate uptake in plants. Boost first met Yara at a conference and the pair quickly realized they had many goals in common. Yara will use Boost’s technology platform to explore better ways to mobilize phosphate, one of the key nutrients that farmers feed plants as fertilizer. In the $50 billion phosphate fertilizer industry, roughly one-third of the phosphate that farmers apply changes in chemical form and becomes unavailable to the plant.
This isn’t the only partnership that Boost is exploring. The startup is focusing on developing its own product pipeline as well as focusing on identifying partners like Yara.
“There are so many challenges out there, big important problems. We don’t know all of them but we are great partners to work with and we are ready to put our tech platform to work.”