Pivot Bio makes fertilizer — but not directly. Its modified microorganisms are added to the soil and they produce nitrogen that would otherwise have to be transported in trucks and dumped there. This biotech-driven approach could save farmers money and time and ultimately be easier on the environment—a huge opportunity given that investors have pledged $430 million in the company’s latest funding round.
Nitrogen is one of the nutrients that crops need to survive and thrive, and it is only by dumping fertilizer on the soil and mixing it that farmers can grow at today’s rates. But in some ways we are still doing what our ancestors did generations ago.
“Fertilizer changed agriculture – it made so much of the last century possible. But it is not a perfect way to get nutrients to crops,” said Carsten Temme, CEO and co-founder of Pivot Bio. He said this simple fact pointed out that distributing fertilizers in more than a thousand – ten thousand or more – acres of agricultural land is a huge mechanical and logistical challenge, involving many people, heavy machinery and valuable time.
Not to mention the risk that a heavy rain can carry away a lot of fertilizer before it can be absorbed and used, and the huge contribution of greenhouse gases the fertilization process produces. (The microbial approach appears to be much better for the environment.)
Yet the reason we do this in the first place is essentially to mimic the work of microbes that live in soil and produce nitrogen naturally. The relationship between plants and these microbes goes back millions of years, but small organisms are unable to produce enough. Pivot Bio’s insights When it began more than a decade ago, some changes could have supercharged this natural nitrogen cycle.
“We had all known microbes the way to go,” he said. “They’re naturally part of the root system — they were already there. They have this feedback loop, where if they detect fertilizer they don’t make nitrogen to save energy. The only thing we did That is, the part of their genome responsible for producing nitrogen is offline, and we’re waking it up.”
Other agriculture-focused biotech companies such as Indigo and AgBiome are also looking to modify and manage a plant’s “microbiome,” meaning the life that lives in the immediate vicinity of a given plant. A modified microbiome may be resistant to pests, reduce disease or provide other benefits.
It is not so different from yeast, which, as many know from experience, works as a live growing agent. That microbe has been cultivated to consume the sugar and create the gas, which leads to air pockets in baked goods. this Microbes have been modified slightly more directly to continuously consume sugars excreted by plants and to take out nitrogen. And they can do it at rates that massively reduce the need to add solid fertilizer to the soil.
“We’ve traditionally taken tons and tons of physical ingredients, and crumbled it into a powder, such as baker’s yeast, that you can fit in your hand,” Teme said (though, to be precise. For, the product is applied as a liquid). “Suddenly it becomes a little easier to manage that farm. You spare the time when you sit in the tractor and fertilize the field; You will be adding our product at the same time you are planting your seeds. And believe me, if a rain storm hits in the spring, it ain’t all washing up. Globally, almost half of all fertilizers are washed away… but the microbes don’t mind.”
Instead, the microbes sit quietly in the soil and leach nitrogen out at rates of up to 40 pounds per acre—a remarkably old-fashioned way to measure it (why not grams per square centimeter?) but perhaps the topical chronology of agriculture. Considering the trends depending on the crop and the environment that could be enough to do without fertilizers, or it could be almost half or less.
Whatever the ratio provided by microbes, they should be attractive to employ, as Pivot Bio tripled its revenue in 2021. You might wonder why they can be so reassuring only halfway through the year, but as they are currently only selling to farmers. Northern Hemisphere and the product is applied at the beginning of the year at planting, they are done with sales for the year and can be sure it is triple what they sold in 2020.
The microbes die after the crop is harvested, so it is not a permanent change in the ecosystem. And next year, when farmers come back for more, the creatures may have been modified for more. 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 can also be changed when microbes decide to start the process instead of at rest. The latest iteration, the Proven 40, has the yield mentioned above, but further improvements are planned, drawing potential customers over the fence to see if it’s worth the trouble to change strategy.
Recurring revenue and growth potential (by their current estimate they are currently able to address nearly a quarter of the $200 billion total market) led to the current Monster D round, led by DCVC and Temasek. There are about a dozen other investors, to whom I refer readers to in the press release, which undoubtedly lists them in very carefully negotiated order.
Teme says the money will go towards deepening and broadening the platform and enhancing relationships with farmers, which appears to be leaning after giving it a shot. Right now the microbes are specific to corn, wheat and rice, which certainly cover a large portion of agriculture, but there are many other corners of the industry that would benefit from a streamlined, enhanced nitrogen cycle. And it’s certainly a powerful validation of the vision of Temme and his co-founder Alvin Tamsir who was in grad school 15 years ago, he said. Here’s hoping there’s food for thought for those in that situation, wondering if it’s all worth it.