Editor’s Note: Rob Leclerc is a founding partner at AgFunder, AFN’s parent company that invested in biofertilizer startup Kula Bio’s seed round last year. In the wake of Kula Bio’s $50 million Series A round led by LowerCarbon, Rob Leclerc shares why they first invested.
You can discover a wonderful soil microbe in the lab, and it can show great promise in the greenhouse. And it may even be effective at improving crop growth in your field trials. But these microbes tend to be unacceptably unreliable in the real world when they’re forced to compete with many other microbes and perform in many different soil types and environmental conditions.
This is why, for five years, AgFunder did not invest in any soil microbial solutions until we met Kula Bio.
Kula Bio solves this problem by effectively giving microbes batteries, and with these batteries, the microbes can still do their job even in harsh and resource-poor environments. Developed from over ten years of research by cofounders Robert Nocera and Pamela Silver at Harvard, Kula discovered a naturally-occurring microbe that evolved the ability to build up energy stores under certain conditions, fattening themselves up with a kind of bioplastic as it were. Kula thought this feature could help solve the long-standing problem with microbe-based soil amendments and developed a strain that could sequester nitrogen as a fertilizer alternative. Now, instead of having microbes that can survive for only a few days, Kula has microbes that can survive and thrive for weeks, giving plants a slow-drip of nitrogen to maximize growth.
Nitrogen is an essential ingredient in modern agriculture. Globally, nitrogen fertilizer is a $100 billion market. Nearly all nitrogen fertilizer is made synthetically from the Haber Bosch Process, which uses about 5% of the world’s natural gas and contributes significantly to the fertilizer industry’s 2.4% contribution to global greenhouse emissions. And this says nothing of the nitrogen run-off that pollutes waterways and oceans, leading to algal blooms, eutrophication, and ocean dead zones. Climate considerations aside, farmers are today clamoring for alternatives as soaring natural gas prices and weather-related production disruptions in the US have pushed fertilizer prices to record highs.
The invention of the Haber Bosch process may have been one of the most significant discoveries of the 20th century, and Kula Bio may prove to be one of the most important discoveries of the 21st.