When Bayer CropScience bought AgraQuest, the biologicals firm, for nearly half a billion dollars in 2012, Marcus Meadows-Smith’s options were limitless.
As CEO of AgraQuest, and with a highly successful career in the agrichemical and biopesticide industry under his belt, an early retirement was the next logical step. So, he tried it. It was short-lived.
“My main takeaway,” says Meadows-Smith, laughing, “is that retirement is boring.” The U.K. native oversaw the integration with Bayer’s Biologics business for a year post-merger, before commencing his retirement of sorts, in California’s Yolo County, where he helps his wife, Jenny, run their boutique winery and vineyard.
To help keep his mind occupied, he began consulting for various private equity and venture capital firms. One of these was Khosla Ventures, which had discovered and partially funded a tiny start-up in New Zealand. The company, called BioDiscovery, had made a breakthrough discovery creating its patented Advanced Microbial Selection (AMS) process, and Khosla wanted Meadows-Smith to find out if it warranted more of their investment money.
“I said, wow, this is really different. This is a very elegant, very exciting, and powerful R&D platform,” he recalls. “Their response was, if you like it so much, would you like to run the company?”
And so it happened, under his one condition that the company relocate to his adopted California hometown of Davis. In 2014, the new company, renamed BioConsortia, raised $15 million from both Khosla Ventures and Otter Capital, and hired approximately 20 biological scientists, including 5 PhDs, with Meadows-Smith at the helm.
Now, five years later, BioConsortia is on the verge of bringing a host of innovative biological products to the market via the AMS process, which cuts by a whopping two-thirds the amount of time and money required to discover a new biological product.
Raising the Biologicals Bar
Most microbial companies – in fact, every other one Meadows-Smith had ever come across – start off by isolating microbes from the environment, putting them into a freezer, and then testing them one by one, “which is a very logical approach, if you’re a microbiologist. BioConsortia’s AMS process turns that whole process on its head.”
Rather than isolate microbes, plants are grown under various stresses, thereby evolving the plants’ microbiome. After several rounds of transferring the plant microbiome through to the next round of seed and evolving the plant microbiome to getting better and better plants, in the final stage, it isolates the microbes that were closely isolated with those high-performing plants when they were grown under stress.
Meadows-Smith estimates that BioConsortia’s process is not only faster than that of a conventional microbial company, but it is also finding superior products with higher consistency. “We’re not looking to launch just another biological; we are trying to raise the bar on the efficacy and the consistency level of biologicals that are on the market.”
In more recent years, he explains, the company has also been applying the latest technologies including microbiome analysis and machine learning. It utilizes genomics to help identify key microbes that are driving improvements in a plant phenotype in the presence of diseased soil.
In addition to diseased soil, BioConsortia scientists have field tested soils deficient of nutrients such as phosphate or nitrogen or potassium. It has applied drought stress and salt stress. Likewise, it tests in good (or perfect) agronomic conditions in order to find microbes that intrinsically boost plant yields.
“Through this iterative process, you can apply a whole variety of stresses and multiple stresses at one time to identify microbes that help the plant overcome those stresses,” he says.
The criticism frequently leveled at microbials is that they’re inconsistent in the field. “But if your microbe isn’t colonizing or can only colonize in a narrow pH range or in a narrow temperature range, then that’s part of them problem,” Meadows-Smith explains. To overcome this, as part of BioConsortia’s screening process, it looks at how robust individual microbes are and their ability to colonize.
“To be honest, these are some of the mistakes we made in the early days, which is why we now layer on these extra levels of screening. Some of our products looked really good in New Zealand, but when we put them in the Midwest – because the soils, temperature, environment, hybrids, and agronomic practices were different – we saw less compelling field trials results. So, we then went back, and we started discovering products that had a much broader range of crops, soils, and environmental conditions, to make sure that you see a much higher level of consistency in the field.”
Robustness and ease of use are among the key qualities it requires of microbes it brings forward. These are products that the user can have in can with chemistry for two or more years, will have life in corn seed for two years, and can be combined with fertilizers.
“I know that as a grower myself, the last thing you want to do is have something you have to have in cold storage or have to worry about two days before planting, or you can’t plant on the day that your staff and tractor are out ready to go. You just want a robust product that is there and will work on your farm consistently.”
While BioConsortia is currently seeking registrations only in the U.S. market, eventually, it hopes to take them globally. Some of the products it is registering on its own, while some other products, Tier 1 and Tier 2 partners are already beginning to test. It’s possible, Smith says, that it will enter a deal whereby a partner will take one or multiple products through registration processes around the world.
“Because we have quite a large number of products in our pipeline, we were able to give exclusivity on specific leads to our various potential partners,” he adds.
On to Registration
One of BioConsortia’s products moving to the registration phase is a wheat seed treatment, which after two years of field trials, is touted to increase yield on top of best agronomic practice in both low and high yielding growing conditions. The mode of action is based on strong root colonization and helping the plant with nutrient acquisition. It is seeking a partner to take the product to market and expects that the final product will give a 5x return on investment for growers.
According to the company, it has also identified multiple biofungicide leads that are numerically better in efficacy than the best biofungicide products on the market today, two of which are entering the registration phase of development. It expects EPA registrations for these in 2022.
Its biostimulants moving to registration have shown yield increases of over 15% in tomatoes, potatoes, and green beans. Similarly, its nematicide products in early field trials have significantly decreased the number of nematodes infecting the crop plants and have increased yield by 15%. Registrations are expected in 2022.
One area the company is looking to explore further and for which it is seeking partners is fertilizer use improvement. It has initiated projects in nitrogen fixation for non-legume crops, specifically corn and wheat, and expects to receive state registrations for the associated products in 2020.