In this episode of CleanTech Talk, I conclude my conversation with Karsten Temme, PhD, geneticist and CEO of Pivot Bio. He, his long-term collaborator and co-founder Alvin Tamsir, and their team have invented, refined, and delivered to market and fields a genetically engineered microbe that displaces 20-25% of fertilizer with better crop yields. This avoids massive amounts of greenhouse gases from agriculture. That’s a big part of why they’ve just closed a $430 million Series D funding round.
At the beginning of this part of the conversation, Temme talks about his marketing and channel strategy. He’s focused on getting to any farmer growing corn or a couple of other crops and establishing a personal relationship.
In large part this is because they are still at a tiny fraction of the market. A million acres, the amount they have using their product, sounds like a lot, but there are 12.5 billion acres used for agriculture globally, with about 4.6 billion used for cropland specifically. Under the standard Crossing the Chasm model, they are still in the very earliest point of adoption, and are a long way from even the early majority. Establishing references, client stories and champions is key at this stage.
At this stage, their biggest inhibitor to growth is establishing the relationship with the farmer. The demand is far greater than they can service, not because their product can be scaled up in volume, but because they can’t talk to all the people who want it. His experience is that they are getting excitement from everyone they talk with, across the spectrum of innovators to laggards.
Part of this is the labor reduction inherent in their product. Normal fertilization occurs after the crop is harvested and before winter after tillage. The bulk of the fertilizer is applied then, but rain and snow degrade much of it over the months before planting. And so there are successive rounds of fertilizer top-up, each using heavy machinery across the fields when they are dry, compacting the earth and potentially damaging the growing plants as they go through their spurts of growth. Pivot Bio’s product clings to the roots of the plants underground, doesn’t get washed away, and reduces the number of fertilization passes required by 1-3 over the full cycle. Not operating the heavy machinery of agriculture saves labor time, and reduces capital and maintenance costs.
Temme talks about the invention process and eureka moment with his academic collaborators for several minutes. He’d switched from medical technology in his early academic career to genetics for agriculture. He and Tarsin had mapped the genome of nitrogen fixing microbes, intending to find out how to insert the nitrogen fixing genes directly into plants. But that was a wide, tall, and thick wall, and they were banging their heads against it. One day they were walking into a coffee shop in an almost cliched startup corner and had their ‘Aha!’ moment. Why not just suppress the nitrogen sensors in the microbes and use them directly?
For context, biological systems are huge bundles of pre-existing use cases, many of which are suppressed or inactive. Unlikely human technology and businesses, where use cases have been intentionally added, biology evolved, and it’s deeply messy. Analogies of human endeavors as ecosystems misses the fractal nature of biology, where every tiniest niche is both filled and the subject of competition and adaptation. While tech startups can still find major holes to be an intermediary, value-adding and value-siphoning symbiote by building a solution from scratch, in agriculture, major holes can be filled by using from Mother Nature’s toolkit intelligently.
That’s what they do. They use a variety of techniques to turn off nitrogen sensors that suppress nitrogen creation by the microbes in the soil. They continue to produce nitrogen even when doused in nitrogen fertilizer.
That leads to products that are basically baker’s yeast, fermentable in microbrewery-scale facilities, then processing them for delivery. The scale is a tiny fraction of the scale necessary for biofuels and ethanol. Those are attempting to displace massive volumes of fossil fuels, not the baker’s yeast scale. This means that it’s easy to build and staff facilities in countries around the world. But it’s early days, and they still have post-fermentation processing and packaging to attempt to turn the product into the equivalent of tardigrades, the microscopic extremophile water bears that can survive from near absolute zero to above boiling, and from near vacuum to the ocean’s floor.
Tardigrade in moss picture courtesy NASA
Pivot Bio’s products don’t have to have that durability, but they have to be able to shipped and sit in packages on shelves for extended periods of time, be insensitive to more terrestrial extremes of cold and heat, survive winter frosts, and yet still thrive and breed in the spring time as seeds, sunlight, and water combine.
We explored a bit of the changes in farming approaches. I’m strong on low-tillage agriculture as a key lever in the fight on climate change. Temme and Pivot Bio are agnostic on approach. They want to support farmers with easy to use products that reduce overall labor and increase crop yields regardless of how they approach their crops. They want to make it easy for small-hold farmers in the developing world where bulk delivery of fertilizer is challenging to have access to their solution, as well as the agribusinesses with tens or hundreds of thousands of acres under cultivation. (Neat factoids: the biggest grain farm in the US is the Offut family’s 190,000 acre operation, but the biggest agricultural operation in the world is the Mudanjiang City Mega Farm in Heilongjiang, China with 22.5 million acres supporting 100,000 dairy cows).
As stated, there’s a value proposition for climate change directly in the Pivot Bio offering. Temme’s numbers are that each pound of fertilizer has 3 pounds of embodied CO2e and another 6 pounds of CO2e in the form of nitrous oxides, along with 1.5 pounds of nitrates that end up in waterways. But focusing on the 9 pounds of CO2e tells an interesting story as the math unfolds. My mental math on the podcast slips a digit, so to correct it, it works out as follows.
- 9 pounds CO2e per pound of fertilizer
- 40 pounds fertilizer per acre avoided
- 360 lbs of avoided CO2e per acre
- 1 million acres under management today
- 360 million pounds or 180,000 tons of CO2e avoided for the million acres
- About 4.6 billion acres of cropland in the world
- Assuming 80% penetration of Pivot Bio or equivalent product, that would be over 300 megatons of CO2e avoided per year
And that’s before they improve the product. Assuming they get to their 100% replacement of fertilizer, that could represent a gigaton of CO2e annually. And as the scale of the problem is in the gigatons, this solution has the potential to be at the right scale (unlike mechanical or industrial carbon capture and sequestration, as an obvious example).
Temme’s assertion is that arguably 10% of global CO2e emissions can be linked back to ammonia-nitrogen fertilizer, and Pivot Bio can take on a third of that in the core crops that they are focused on in the top global markets. They want to address 3-4% of global emissions in the coming decade or two.
Temme closed with an opportunity to connect offered to CleanTechnica’s audience. He would love to engage with anyone who wants to reach out to help create the low-carbon bioeconomy of the future.
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