Jan 31, 2017
Microbial solutions firm to debut new products

Founded in 2012 by six veteran plant scientists and entrepreneurs, biotechnology company AgBiome has grown to 75 employees. The operation is housed in a 30,000-square-foot laboratory and greenhouse facility in Research Triangle Park near Raleigh, North Carolina.

AgBiome has raised a total of $52 million in equity financing from industry sources and other partners, according to the company.

“At AgBiome, we are driven to be the most successful innovator ever,” said founder Eric Ward. “One way we measure our success is by having the happiest employees.”

Ward said “we create an environment where people, naturally motivated to strive for mastery, have access to everything needed to achieve their goals, and those of the company’s.

“Our team members share a passion that is driven by improving global food production and protecting the environment and the people who live and work in it. Our culture breaks down traditional hierarchies and fosters teamwork that empowers everyone to drive new technologies to the forefront.”

Brooke Bissinger is the entomology lead for AgBiome. She has a background in agriculture, repellents, medical and veterinary entomology and tick physiology.

Ward established the company using his decades of experience in the biotech industry as his foundation. Progressing from his roots at Syngenta (formerly Novartis/ Zeneca), Ward founded, directed and guided a number of different biotech-related startups, initiatives and businesses within a span of almost three decades. This includes his very first startup, Cropsolutions, as well as other already established organizations such as the Two Blades Foundation and the North Carolina Sciences Organization.

“AgBiome has the largest sequenced microbe collection (35,000+) in the world,” Ward said. “Our discovery process identifies high-potential microbial genes, strains and proteins through a proprietary biodiversity screening platform. By unlocking the potential of microbes, AgBiome is helping to meet the world’s food needs in a more productive and sustainable way.”

Howler, AgBiome’s first product, is a biological fungicide that has been submitted for regulatory review, with first sales anticipated in 2017 in high-value crops and turf/ornamentals. Howler is “significantly more efficacious than current biologicals and comparable to chemical treatment; has preventative and curative activity; and is OMRI listed, enabling its use in organic crops,” according to the company.

AgBiome has formed research and development partnerships with other ag biotech companies to speed the discovery and delivery of innovation, Ward said.

AgBiome received a $6.8 million grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to develop biological insect control for farmers in Africa. That funding will be used for work to discover beneficial microbes that can deter sweet potato weevils, an insect pest that causes crop losses of 60 percent to 100 percent if left untreated.

“The investment community has typically under-appreciated agriculture,” Ward said. “We like to remind them food and agriculture is the most important industry in the world. We know the population is growing. The (United Nations) states a billion and a half more people will join the middle class in the next 15 years. That’s one of the real drivers. Even with good agronomic practices there’s still a large amount of yield loss.”

He said ongoing consolidation of agriculture chemical companies is restricting new product releases.

“There is a huge need to innovate and come up with things that are real new modes of action, and that’s what this company is all about. R&D budgets are being cut. Only about one new insecticide comes along every 10 years now. Most of it is premixes of stuff that is 60 or 70 years old. Our vision is to be the most successful ag innovator.”

Culture samples in the laboratory at AgBiome.

A significant emphasis is placed on company culture, Ward said.

“We know from experience that people who are deeply satisfied about what they do are more productive,” he said. “From that will come good financial returns. A lot of companies say people are the most important thing and then do a whole bunch of things to demonstrate that people aren’t the most important thing. We would be nothing without the people who are here. It’s pretty unusual for a small company to have people laser focused on developing products.”

The company focuses on the plant biome, and its microscopic ecosystem, to discover elements that can be beneficially extracted for more large- scale uses, Ward said.

AgBiome’s primary mode of research is the sampling of symbiotic microbes in agriculturally relevant areas. The samples are then assayed against other determinants, classifying and identifying beneficial elements from the samples that can be used for further testing.

The vast majority of AgBiome’s research and development program hinges on the proprietary system GENESIS. Standing for Gene and Strain Identification System, GENESIS identifies and classifies all known samples, providing a data-driven screening process to filter potential biologicals or traits that can then be developed and introduced as a commercial product.

What applications does AgBiome have in mind for fruit and vegetable growers?

“Anything that we can impact with a microbe,” Ward said.

The biologicals market continues to blossom, said Ward, who anticipates a 15 percent compounded annual growth rate producing a $5 billion market over the next five to 10 years.

Regulatory and consumer pressures placed on traditional synthetic products give companies like AgBiome an entry point to the market, he said.

“A significant chunk (of synthetics) will either be pulled off the market completely or limited by more or less rational regulatory issues and public sentiment,” Ward said. “They can either be outright substituted with biologicals, or the chemicals under pressure could be augmented with biologicals offering multiple new modes of action. It helps manage the chemical load and resistance issues. It’s very easy for a fungus or insect to become resistant to one chemical.

“We have identified 3,000 insect control genes in a two-year timeframe,” Ward said. “The entire industry has had about 600-700 genes identified. We have multiple active genes that hit all of the major insect classes. We have hundreds of active strains that hit all of the active indications and we’re field trialing all of them. We have a real emphasis on new modes of action – we’re looking for new ways to kill this stuff. We start with a large pool of microbes and genes.”

With a shorter timeframe for regulatory approval, Ward said biologicals hold a time-to-market advantage over synthetics.

“We’re looking at a year-and-a-half to two years for us, and about seven years or more for synthetics,” he said.

John Rabby, commercial director of AgBiome Innovations, the business development arm, pointed to the company’s pursuit of laboratory assays as “one piece of proprietary knowledge – the know-how of how to run those assays in the laboratory to go over those pests themselves” as being AgBiome’s strength.

“We’re just a little over three years old, and we’ll be launching a product the first part of (2017),” Rabby said. “How many industries in the ag world have ever done that?

“The creativity and innovation is what this group is all about,” Rabby said. “Innovation and creativity is going to be lost in the next few years in ag. There’s not going to be a big surplus of this. I believe we can capture that mindset not only with Howler but with the other projects coming up.”

— Gary Pullano, associate editor

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