Plants need nitrogen to survive, especially as it’s a vital energy source for robust agricultural growth. Yet, our current methods of nitrogen delivery are inefficient, costly, and environmentally destructive. Where these methods have left off is where biotech startups like Pivot Bio pick up.
This past April, the Pivot Bio secured $100 million in its Series C funding round, backed by Bill Gates’s Breakthrough Energy Ventures and global investment firm Temasek. And at its current pace, the startup could massively disrupt the $65 billion global synthetic fertilizer market.
To learn more about how Pivot Bio plans to shake up the agriculture industry, I sat down with CEO and co-founder Karsten Temme.
This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
The early days at Pivot Bio
CHRIS CHEN: Ever since its invention in 1918, chemical fertilizer has revolutionized farming—but it has come at a cost. Could you walk me through the problem with traditional fertilizers?
KARSTEN TEMME: The inherent flaw of synthetic nitrogen is that once the bulk chemical is applied, it’s out of a farmer’s control. They know that 40-60% of that synthetic nitrogen will never reach the plant.
Instead, 1% of it becomes nitrous oxide, a greenhouse gas 300 times more powerful than CO2. While around 30% or more leaches out of the soil to contaminate drinking water and marine habitats in the form of nitrate. Another 20% or so escapes into the atmosphere as ammonia or nitrogen oxides that cause respiratory issues.
So, the whims of the wind and weather decide the fate of the nitrogen.
Your company has aimed to do something about this. What’s the story behind Pivot Bio?
Alvin Tamsir and I started Pivot Bio with an ambition to create a better way to feed the world, empower farmers globally, and protect our natural resources. We realized solving these three goals required a sustainable source of nitrogen for crops.
A grant from the Gates Foundation in 2011 helped us get the company off the ground, and we initially worked to develop a transgenic plant that could produce its own nitrogen. There were huge scientific and technical hurdles to this approach, and we quickly realized it could not produce an impact quickly enough to benefit farmers.
So what kind of thinking helped you to overcome these hurdles?
There was a turning point when we realized the solution was right beneath our feet—in the soil microbiome. Nature held a solution to the problem.
To clarify, some of the soil microbes were capable of sustainably producing nitrogen long before synthetic fertilizer was invented. Expansive use of fertilizer had caused them to go into hibernation.
We focused on re-awakening these microbes and their natural ability to breathe in the air and convert atmospheric nitrogen into a form that plants can use. We viewed the DNA of microbes as computer programs that encode instructions on how to sense and respond to the environment. It helped us decipher why these microbes went into hibernation and how to get them to work again in today’s agricultural system.
Products and innovations
What has Pivot Bio created?
Pivot Bio has created a solution that helps farmers achieve better outcomes through consistent yields, a stronger return on their crop nutrient investment, and reduced dependence on synthetic nitrogen fertilizer. Our inaugural product, Pivot Bio PROVEN, transforms the way farmers supply nutrients to their corn crop.
When added to the soil at the same time a farmer plants their corn seeds, the microbes in our product begin to grow with the crop. These microbes attach to the roots of the plant, breathe in atmospheric nitrogen, and spoon feed the plant this nutrient each day. It’s the ultimate symbiosis, one that is making a difference to farming and the planet.
What innovations have enabled the success of the Pivot Bio product?
Pivot Bio’s revolutionary solution is possible because of a few recent scientific breakthroughs. DNA sequencing enables our scientists to peer into the soil and map how plants and microbes interact. We leverage massive cloud computing resources to unravel the DNA code and understand how some soil microbes have the potential to produce nitrogen in response to crop needs.
To unlock that potential, we employ non-GMO, synthetic biology techniques so the microbes wake from synthetic-fertilizer induced hibernation. The result is a probiotic purpose-built to sense and respond to a growing plant, providing it a sustainable source of nitrogen throughout the growing season.
Nitrogen-producing microbes vs. fertilizers
From an environmental standpoint, what are the key advantages that make nitrogen-producing microbes better than fertilizers?
Pivot Bio’s microbes eliminate the negative impacts that synthetic nitrogen fertilizers impart on the environment. They live along the root of the plant, providing nitrogen directly to the plant in a process that could be twice as effective as of today’s synthetic fertilizers.
So, Pivot Bio PROVEN does not leach into the water or volatilize into the air. By restoring the relationship between plants and beneficial soil microbes, reliable nitrogen from Pivot Bio PROVEN:
- Makes nitrogen out of sugar, water, and air; eliminating the 3-5% of global liquid natural gas supplies needed to make synthetic nitrogen fertilizer
- Helps the farmer reduce their reliance on synthetic nitrogen fertilizer, increasing their return on investment
- Stays at the root of the plant during extreme weather and doesn’t wash away so our drinking water is cleaner, and these nutrients stay out of waterways limiting algal blooms and dead zones in our oceans
Nitrogen from our microbes has the potential to avoid 10 kilograms of CO2e for every kilogram of nitrogen they provide. If we were to use our product across all 90 million corn acres today, we could avoid nearly 10 million metric tons of GHGs—the equivalent of taking two million cars off of the road.
Important learnings for Pivot Bio
How has Pivot Bio withstood the test of Covid-19?
Since Pivot Bio PROVEN’s launch, the demand for our product has been beyond what we could originally foresee.
Farmers like our microbes since they are made with less energy and less water, with a carbon footprint 98% smaller than the Haber-Bosch process. The nitrogen our microbes provide is produced at low doses and avoids the accumulation of excess nitrogen that is the inherent flaw of synthetic nitrogen.
While Covid-19 restrictions happened as most U.S. farmers were beginning to plant, they could not be delayed. Pivot Bio worked with our customers and partners to ensure a smooth planting season without any disruptions to our supply chain.
Were there any valuable lessons you encountered along the way?
Since Pivot Bio was founded, we’ve been geared for learning and growth. Three big lessons shape us today.
First, the microbes at the core of our products supply sustainable nitrogen to crops. That’s something scientists, agronomists and companies have been pursuing for over 100 years. Many thought it was impossible, and through years of experiments, we have discovered the impossible.
Second, we have realized that our business necessitates us to be close partners to the growers we serve. That means building a commercial presence to put us side by side with farmers on their mission to grow better crops. It’s an exhilarating and disruptive opportunity to shake up the industry.
Third, we have discovered that speed is part of our core identity. It’s led us to build a company focused on innovating, designing, and delivering products to farmers at a faster pace.
Long-term expansion goals for Pivot Bio
Do you intend to translate this solution to other crops?
About half of the world’s fertilizer today is used on just three crops—corn, wheat, and rice. That is where we spend the majority of our time designing new products. We are also passionate about impact and making the biggest dent in the market as fast as possible, so we work with partners who can help us reach crops like fruits, vegetables, or permanent crops like orchards or nut trees.
As Pivot Bio continues to grow, what are your long-term goals?
From here, we are aiming to eliminate one gigaton of carbon dioxide-equivalent emissions (akin to removing 216 million cars off the road) through the use of our products. That’s a decade of ambition, and it means displacing synthetic nitrogen fertilizer by at least 100 million metric tons. We’re excited to see our innovations make a big impact on both our farmers and the environment.
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