Durham, NC –AgBiome is the biotechnology company which may not be top of mind, but it has a vision of becoming the most successful agricultural innovator. As the “big six” crop protection companies experience mergers, five-year-old AgBiome has attracted more than 75 employees (and growing) that have been directly involved in discovering or developing more than a dozen ag products, some from these behemoths. The result is a much nimbler entity that is exploring the plant microbiome for genes that will solve agronomic threats such as insects and disease.
At AgBiome, how research is structured and funded is as important as what is being researched. In 2016, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation thought enough of AgBiome’s track record to award two multi-year grants to research and develop beneficial microbes that can control insects and diseases for smallholder farms in sub-Saharan Africa. And among others, three strategic investors have put up funds, including Monsanto Growth Ventures, Novozymes and Syngenta Ventures, with no special rights for their equity investments.
Why are these investors excited? Leading-edge research is exploring the unseen – the microbiome or small colonies of microbes surrounding plants. Super throughput computers can analyze thousands of soil samples and distinguish high-potential microbial genes. To date, AgBiome has more than 3,500 new insect and nematode control genes in its library. As leaders in microbial genome analysis, they have several products in the pipeline.
As John Rabby, commercial director, explains, AgBiome’s proprietary Genesis discovery platform can isolate individual bacterial strains, from which DNA is extracted for complete genome sequencing. AgBiome currently holds the world’s largest, most diverse, fully sequenced collection of microbes (more than 35,000). With a state-of-the-art, 30,000 square-foot laboratory at their disposal, the researchers are on a high-speed track towards commercialization.
“We are anticipating the launch of our first product, Howler fungicide, early in 2017,” says Rabby. It’s a biological fungicide for control of Rhizoctonia, Phythophthora, Pythium, Colletotrichum (anthracnose) and other fungal pathogens. The Organic Materials Review Institute (OMRI) has listed the product, pending registration expected in March 2017. Canadian registration is likely a year away.
“Howler will provide great efficacy on conventional and organic crops. It is going to be a good stand-alone product and tank mix partner with other fungicides,” says Steve Ronyak, field biology manager. “Its current formulation is a wettable powder formulation and mixes readily into water.”
Once registered, Howler can be used to control several diseases in tomatoes, peppers, strawberries and apples, among other crops.
The advent of such products signals a new era in crop protection. AgBiome’s analysis anticipates a $5 billion market in biologicals by 2020 and a $31 billion market in biotech traits. The $40 billion category of synthetic chemicals is expected to decline as more resistance develops in pests to conventional pesticides, regulatory pressures mount on neonicotinoids and public perception sours on the chemical category.
Taking seven to 10 years from discovery to registration of a new active ingredient for controlling a pest is not responsive enough to meet global food needs.
“With high throughput leads, we aim to move from discovery to registration within 18 to 24 months,” says Rabby. “We’re testing seed treatments, new formulations and expanded crop opportunities right now and they could be commercialized in 2019.”
The best brains collaborate
Today’s scientific world is global, and by the day, is reinventing itself in new working cells. That’s why John Rabby has proven to be such a staunch spokesperson for the concept and culture of AgBiome.
Rabby has dedicated his career to innovation in agriculture, with a resume that reaches back to 1980 with American Cyanamid. When the company was sold to BASF in 2000, he became group vice-president of the BASF Agricultural Division for North America. In 2003, he moved to Makhteshim Agan (MANA), the Israeli chemical company, to become its President/CEO for North America.
He’s been keen on global agricultural projects and has known the founders of AgBiome for many years. He’s been commercial director for AgBiome since 2016.
“The combination of the expertise of our team, our proprietary process and our work culture allows us to innovate more effectively,” Rabby says.
Rapidly approaching the end of the first quarter in 2017, he’s looking for the adrenalin rush of AgBiome’s first commercialized product.
“We’re coming up on our fifth anniversary and we’re launching our first fungicide product, with a lot more in the pipeline,” Rabby says. “Innovation and creativity is what AgBiome is all about, and we’re looking forward to what lies ahead.”