Company Profile: AgBiome Harnessing Microbes for Better Crop Production
- Founded in 2012 by six plant scientists, projects 75 employees by 2017
- Raised $52 million in two high-profile investment rounds
- Now in newly built 30,000-sq-ft RTP lab & greenhouse
- Got $6.8 million Gates Foundation grant to save African sweet potatoes
By Barry Teater, NCBiotech Writer
|-- AgBiome photos|
Just as the human body hosts a microbiome – the legions of bacteria, fungi and other microbes that help us digest food and fight infection – so do plants, including the crops that give us food and fiber.
Many of the microbes that live in or on crop plants, or in the soil by their roots, are vital to plant health and growth. They help crops combat pathogens, absorb nutrients and minerals from the soil, and survive hot, dry or salty conditions.
Harnessing the diverse crop microbiome for better plant agriculture is the mission of AgBiome Inc., a young and growing biotechnology company in the Research Triangle Park.
“By taking advantage of the untapped benefits of these organisms, AgBiome is discovering new solutions that work symbiotically with a plant, resulting in robust and sustainable crops,” the company explains on its website. “AgBiome’s products will help farmers combat many of the most important unsolved problems in agriculture, including insects, nematodes and diseases.”
More productive crop plants will be critical to feeding and clothing a global population that is projected to swell to 11 billion people by the end of the century, up from 7.4 billion today. That challenge is magnified by declining farmland and crop-yield losses of about 30 percent due to disease and pests, the company says.
Fast from seed to shoot
AgBiome was founded in 2012 by six veteran plant scientists and entrepreneurs working in the Research Triangle area: Jeff Dangl, Mike Koziel, John Ryals, Paul Schulze-Lefert, Scott Uknes and Eric Ward.
In the four years since then, the company has grown quickly and achieved some important milestones.
- It raised $52 million in two investment rounds from the venture capital arms of ag giants Syngenta, Monsanto and Novozymes and from other high-profile investors.
- It formed R&D partnerships with other ag biotech companies including a deal with Genective, a French developer of biotech corn seed, to discover new ways of controlling crop insects, and a multi-year pact with Syngenta to create novel insect-resistant crops.
- Early this year AgBiome moved from Durham to a new, state-of-the-art, 30,000-square-foot laboratory and greenhouse facility in Research Triangle Park.
- The company’s workforce has grown to 65 full-time and part-time employees and is expected to reach 75 by the end of the year.
- And most recently, the company received a $6.8 million grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation – also one of AgBiome’s equity stakeholders – to develop biological insect control for smallholder farmers in African nations. The multi-year award will fund work to discover beneficial microbes that can deter sweet potato weevils, an insect pest that causes crop losses of 60 to 100 percent if left untreated.
R&D Begins in Genesis
AgBiome has a proprietary screening program called Genesis for discovering microbial strains, genes and proteins that show potential utility for controlling disease, insects and nematodes, and boosting crop yields.
“We’re developing traits and biologicals that not a lot of people are doing at all,” says John Rabby, head of the company’s new AgBiome Innovations division, charged with commercializing new products. (Rabby is also vice chairman of the N.C. Biotechnology Center’s board of directors).
The Genesis platform has identified what AgBiome describes as the world’s largest and most diverse collection of plant-associated microbes. Company scientists have fully sequenced and annotated the genomes of more than 34,000 microbial strains.
“Our team has isolated, sequenced and screened thousands of microbes and discovered multiple new mode-of-action traits and highly effective biologicals,” says Phil Hammer, Ph.D., director of research. “For us, it’s always been about finding efficacious, environmentally friendly ways to help growers get more out of their crops.”
Seven Products in Development
AgBiome Innovations is preparing to launch the company’s first product, a broad-spectrum biological fungicide, in early 2017. AgBiome will partner with SePRO Corp., an Indiana-based company with operations in Whitaker and Rocky Mount, N.C., to offer the product for turf and ornamental applications.
The fungicide, trademarked as Zio in the turf and ornamental market and Howler in the food crops market, has been submitted to the Environmental Protection Agency for regulatory review. It combats a broad range of fungal and oomycete diseases that can destroy entire crops or contaminate or spoil harvested food. The company says it is up to 20 times more effective than existing biological solutions and is comparable to premier chemical controls in potency.
The product is also pending an “allowable for organic production” listing by the Organic Materials Review Institute (OMRI), an international, nonprofit organization that determines which input products are allowed for use in organic production and processing of food and fiber crops.
“We’re moving so quickly on product launching,” says Rabby. “We actually have seven products in the queue.”
In addition to Zio and Howler, the company is working on a treatment for Asian soybean rust for the U.S. and Latin America markets, an insecticide for piercing, sucking crop insects, and a nematicide for the European corn borer and corn root worm.
Another insecticide and two more fungicides are on the more distant horizon, Rabby says.
Unorthodox Company Culture
AgBiome isn’t shy about its ambitions “to be the most successful agricultural innovator ever.” Achieving that lofty status, it says, will require not only discovering novel products and producing high financial returns, but maintaining happy employees.
To cultivate a productive workforce, AgBiome has adopted some unconventional management practices.
“It’s completely different from when I was trained and all the cultures that I was brought into,” says Rabby, who was a senior executive at American Cyanamid and BASF before joining AgBiome. “It’s a very open environment, very interactive, much more so than I’ve ever seen. This eliminates silo development. Everybody’s trying to help everybody else.”
The company has no fixed organizational structure or traditional supervisory relationships. Employees don’t have formal titles or individual offices; they share open cubicles instead. Every Friday is dog day, when employees can bring their pet canines to work.
The people best-placed to make a decision are expected to do so in consultation with anyone affected by the decision and with the advice of colleagues.
“We self-assemble around problems to be solved,” the company says on its website. “Experts make decisions. We do not push decision-making to the top of an arbitrary pyramidal hierarchy.”
Employee-led committees run each of the company’s functions, including compensation, job performance and advancement, benefits, business development, and finance. There are no individual employee performance evaluations or bonuses tied to achievement of individual objectives.
“It’s very teamwork oriented, very people oriented,” Rabby says. “Everybody’s focused toward company goals, not individual goals.”
While acknowledging that traditional employee-reward schemes can be effective for simple jobs, “we believe they are counterproductive for people engaged in highly complex tasks with uncertain outcomes,” the company explains on its website. “Rather than fostering internal competition among our employees, we believe that the relevant competitive unit is our company versus the rest of our industry.”