Nitrogen fertilizer is widely used in row crop production and is a key expense farmers face each year. But often that fertilizer is wasted, washing away after heavy rains or leaching due to irrigation or poor soil quality. The impact of this waste is not just felt in the farmer’s pocket, but it’s increasingly having a negative impact on the local environment.
When heavy rains wash nitrogen fertilizer out of the fields and into major waterways, it causes major disruption to the aquatic ecosystem, creating expansive “dead zones” where the nitrogen feeds algae growth. The algae consume a disproportionate amount of oxygen in the water, making it nearly impossible for anything else to grow or survive.
Synthetic fertilizers also 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.
Agtech startup Pivot Bio is hoping to reduce these negative impacts with a microbe-based product called Proven. This liquid input is applied to seed as it’s sewn in the field and contains naturally-occurring microbes that fixate nitrogen from the atmosphere and secrete it at the corn crop’s root zone for the plant to use as needed. Pivot Bio claims this is the first sustainable nitrogen-producing microbe for corn and that recent trials show it’s working.
In a six-year trial, spanning 13 states, 45 different soil types, and 11,000 acres, farms using PROVEN produced on average 7.7 bushels of corn more per acre than those using traditional synthetic fertilizer. In areas of heavier rain or challenging soil types prone to leaching, this increase averaged nearly 17 bushel per acre as the trials showed the microbes still colonized the root zone regardless of weather conditions. Because the microbes are applied at the same time as the seed, Proven also negates the need to plow the field, saving labor and machinery costs, as well as reducing the soil erosion associated with plowing.
“As farmers, we rely on nitrogen, yet historically it’s one of the variables we have least control over,” said Kevin Poppel, a farmer in southwest Minnesota. “My yield monitor at harvest showed me that Pivot Bio PROVEN was providing the crop the nitrogen it needed all season long. With this product, I can set it and forget it.”
Based on the results of its 2018 trials, 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.
Capturing Farmers’ Trust
Conducting trials was a key step on the road to commercialization for PROVEN because farmers have largely been skeptical of biologics’ potential, with many of them believing that they’re nothing more than snake oil. Pivot Bio launched the Intent to Pivot 2018 trial program to engage with growers directly and to let them see for themselves whether PROVEN makes a difference.
“This is an exciting technology. It’s never been done in corn really, and the reason we are so interested is because nitrogen is a difficult thing to manage. It’s a pretty high input cost on corn and if we put down too much and get too much rain, it can wash away. That’s a lot of money to waste and has a substantial environmental impact,” Bryan Tomm, one of the participating trial growers, told AgFunderNews.
“But if we put down too little, it’s difficult to come back and add more later on. It requires more money and more management. Proven really adds a safety net to our nitrogen program and by doing that, it not only reduces the stress in managing a crop, but it also provides some value in knowing that its a pretty secure form of nitrogen.”
Ensuring that the product could be integrated smoothly into farmers’ existing routines was key because many of them are hesitant to add another item to their already lengthy daily chore lists. PROVEN can be incorporated with farmers’ existing nitrogen management programs and works with common equipment and can be incorporated with other inputs like liquid insecticide. It also reduces the need to plough the field,
Tomm, who grows a variety of commodity crops on his 2,500-acre farm in Southeastern Illinois, is an avid participant in trials. Regardless of whether the outcome is successful, he finds that he always learns something new from it that helps him make better decisions for the next year. A third party company called In10t facilitated the trial through check-in calls and protocol support, which made the trial less disruptive to his regular farming operation.
“I wish startups understood our margins and our economic climate better. I think farmers live in a pretty isolated world when it comes to the economy and the farm economy works very differently than traditional Silicon Valley might work,” Tomm says. “It seems like some startups come out with a product that can help me make $20 more per acre, but they charge $21 per acre for the product. Everyone is after the dollar. The exciting technologies are the ones that really bring value and increase profitability for the farm.”
What’s Next for Pivot Bio?
PivotBio has a number of other products in the works, including a next-generation nitrogen-producing microbe for corn and products for wheat, sorghum, and rice. It also has plans to launch in Europe, Asia, and Latin America. Last year, it announced an expansion into soybeans through a collaboration with Bayer to develop strains of soybean that have enhanced nitrogen production.
In October 2018, Pivot Bio completed its Series B round led by Breakthrough Energy Ventures and Temasek. DCVC (Data Collective), who led Pivot Bio’s seed and Series A rounds, continued its support of the startup.
Other investors include Monsanto Growth Ventures, Prelude Ventures, Spruce Capital Partners, Codon Capital, Bunge Ventures, Continental Grain Company, Tekfen Ventures, Pavilion Capital, Alan Cohen, and Roger Underwood (the co-founder of Becker Underwood) as investors.