AgBiome, which develops products from microbial communities, generated a $ 116 million Series D round as the company prepares to complete its portfolio with new products.
The company, based in Research Triangle Park, North Carolina, was co-founded in 2012 by a group that included Co-CEOs Scott Uknes and Eric Ward, who have known each other for more than 30 years. They created the Genesis discovery platform to capture diverse microbes for agricultural applications, such as crop protection, and select the strains for the best assays that would work for insect, disease, and nematode control.
“The microbial world is huge,” said Uknes, who explained that there are an estimated 1 trillion microbes, but only 1% have been discovered. Humans use the already discovered microbes for things like pharmaceuticals, food, and agriculture. AgBiome built its database in Genesis to house more than 100,000 microbes and each genome in each microbe was sequenced into hundreds of strains.
The company randomly selects strains and searches for the best family of strains with a certain activity, such as preventing fungus in strawberries, and creates the product.
Its first fungicide product, Howler, was launched last year and works on more than 300 crop and disease combinations. The company experienced 10-fold sales growth in 2020, Uknes told TechCrunch. As part of the farmers’ integrated pest program, they often spray fungicide applications 12 times a year to produce fruits and vegetables.
Due to its safer formula, Howler can be used as the last application in the program and its differentiator is a shorter re-entry period: farmers can spray in the morning and return to the field in the afternoon. It also has a shorter pre-harvest time of four hours after application. Other fungicides on the market today require seven days before re-entry and before harvest, Uknes explained.
AgBiome aims to add a second fungicide product, Theia, in early 2022, while a third, Esendo, was submitted for registration with the Environmental Protection Agency. The UK expects to have 11 products, also expanding to insecticides and herbicides, by 2025.
The oversubscribed Series D round was co-led by Blue Horizon and Novalis LifeSciences and included several new and existing investors. The latest investment gives AgBiome more than $ 200 million in total funding to date. The last round of financing for the company was a $ 65 million Series C raised in 2018.
While competitors in synthetic biology often sell their companies to someone who can manufacture their products, Uknes said AgBiome decided to manufacture and market the products itself, something that his team is proud to be able to do.
“We want to feed the world responsibly, and these products have the ability to substitute for synthetic chemicals and provide growers with a way to protect their crops, especially as consumers want natural and sustainable tools,” he added.
The company has grown to more than 100 employees and will use the new funds to accelerate production of its two new products, develop its manufacturing capacity in North America and expand its international presence. Uknes plans to increase its workforce to 300 in the next five years.
AgBiome anticipates incorporating some smaller companies that have a product in production to expand their portfolio in addition to their organic growth. As a result, Uknes said it was particular about the type of investment partners that would work best to achieve that goal.
Przemek Obloj, Managing Partner of Blue Horizon, was introduced to the company by existing investors. His firm has an impact fund focused on the future of food and began investing in alternative proteins in 2016 before expanding it to delivery systems in agricultural technology, he said.
Obloj said that AgBiome is operating in a $ 60 billion market where problems include products that put toxic chemicals in the soil that end up in water systems. While the solution would be not to do that, not doing so would mean that production is not growing as well, he added.
The change in technology in agriculture is allowing Uknes and Ward to do something that was not possible 10 years ago because there was not enough processing or storage capacity to discover and sequence microbes.
“We don’t want to pollute the Earth, but we have to find a way to feed 9 billion people by 2050,” Obloj said. “With AgBiome, there is an alternative way to protect crops than polluting the Earth or posing health risks.”