Pivot Bio manufactures fertilizers, but not directly. Its modified microorganisms are added to the soil and they produce nitrogen that would otherwise have to be trucked and dumped there. This biotech-based approach can save farmers time and money and, ultimately, can be easier on the environment – a huge opportunity in which investors invested $ 430 million in the last funding round of the company.
Nitrogen is one of the nutrients that crops need to survive and thrive, and only by pouring fertilizer onto the soil and mixing it together can farmers continue to grow at the current rate. But in some ways, we are still doing what our ancestors did generations ago.
“Fertilizers have changed agriculture – it’s what made much of the last century possible. But it’s not an ideal way to provide nutrients to crops, ”said Karsten Temme, CEO and co-founder of Pivot Bio. He pointed out the simple fact that distributing fertilizer to one thousand – not to mention ten thousand or more – acres of farmland is a huge mechanical and logistical challenge, involving many people, heavy machinery and precious time.
Not to mention the risk that a heavy rain could wash away much of the fertilizer before it is absorbed and used, and the huge contributions of greenhouse gases produced by the fertilization process. (The microbial approach appears to be considerably better for the environment.)
Yet the reason we do this in the first place is basically to mimic the work of microbes that live in the soil and produce nitrogen naturally. Plants and these microbes have a relationship stretching back millions of years, but tiny organisms just don’t produce enough. The idea of Pivot Bio when it started over ten years ago was that a few tweaks could overload this natural nitrogen cycle.
“We all know germs were the way to go,” he said. “They’re a natural part of the root system – they were already there. They have this feedback loop, where if they detect fertilizer, they don’t produce nitrogen, to save energy. The only thing we’ve done is take the part of their genome responsible for nitrogen production to go offline, and we’re waking it up. “
Other agriculture-focused biotech companies like Indigo and AgBiome are also looking to modify and manage the plant’s ‘microbiome’ – the life that lives in close proximity to a given plant. A modified microbiome can be resistant to parasites, reduce disease, or provide other benefits.
It’s not that different from yeast, which, as many know from experience, works as a living leavening agent. This microbe has been cultivated to consume sugar and produce gas, which leads to air pockets in baked goods. This microbe has been modified a little more directly to continually consume the sugars emitted by plants and emit nitrogen. And they can do so at rates that dramatically reduce the need to add solid fertilizers to the soil.
“We took what’s traditionally tons and tons of physical material, and we reduced it to a powder, like baker’s yeast, that you can hold in your hand,” Temme said (although, to be precise, the product is applied as a liquid). “Suddenly the management of this farm becomes a little easier. You free up the time you would have spent sitting in the tractor fertilizing the field; you will add our product at the same time as you will be your seeds. And you can rest assured that if a torrential rain comes in the spring, it won’t wash away everything. Globally, about half of all fertilizer is washed away… but microbes don’t care.
Instead, the microbes simply sit in the soil pumping nitrogen at a rate of up to 40 pounds per acre – a remarkably old-fashioned way of measuring it (why not in grams per square centimeter?), but perhaps in keeping with occasional farming. anachronistic tendencies. Depending on the crop and environment, this may be enough to do without added fertilizers, or it may be about half or less.
Whatever the proportion contributed by the microbes, it must be tempting to employ them, because Pivot Bio tripled its turnover in 2021. One can wonder why they can not be sure until mid-year, but as they currently only sell to northern hemisphere farmers and the product is applied at planting time at the start of the year, they have completed the year sales and can be sure it is three times what they sold in 2020.
The microbes die off once the crop is harvested, so this is not a permanent change in the ecosystem. And next year, when the farmers come back for more, the organisms may well have been changed again. It’s not as simple as turning nitrogen production on or off in the genome; the enzymatic pathway from sugar to nitrogen can be improved, and the threshold at which microbes decide to undertake the process rather than rest can also be changed. The latest iteration, Proven 40, has the performance mentioned above, but more improvements are planned, drawing potential clients to the close as to whether it’s worth switching tactics.
The potential for recurring revenue and growth (according to their current estimate, they are currently able to cover about a quarter of a total market of $ 200 billion) has led to the current Monster Round D, led by DCVC and Temasek. . There are about a dozen other investors, for whom I refer readers to the press release, which arguably lists a very carefully negotiated order for them.
Temme says the money will be used to deepen and broaden the platform and develop relationships with the farmers, who appear to be addicted after trying. Right now, microbes are specific to corn, wheat, and rice, which of course covers a lot of agriculture, but there are many other parts of the industry that would benefit from a streamlined nitrogen cycle. and improved. And it’s certainly a powerful validation of the vision Temme and his co-founder Alvin Tamsir had at college 15 years ago, he said. Hopefully this gives those in that position now some food for thought, wondering if it’s worth it.