Karsten Temme, CEO at Pivot Bio talks about the production of nitrogen fertilizer in the agriculture industry, the launch of Pivot Bio PROVEN™ and the biggest challenges in developing and commercialising the new product in the USA.

Karsten Temme, CEO, Pivot Bio

You are speaking at the World Agri-Tech Innovation Summit in San Francisco next March 19-20 about the sustainable intensification of agriculture. Can you tell me a bit more about how Pivot Bio fits into this challenge? What crops are you targeting and why? What mechanisms do you feel are needed to better incentivise the adoption of sustainable solutions?
At Pivot Bio, we’re building sustainable products for production ag, primarily for corn, wheat, rice and soy. The yields of these crops skyrocketed during the 20th century, and now in the 21st century we have an opportunity to radically improve the efficiency and resiliency of this system. Today, fertilizer is the fuel that makes it possible to reach yield potential. However, more than half of applied fertilizer is never consumed by the crop and instead lost as environmental pollution. Pivot Bio is changing that. We leverage the crop’s own microbiome to produce nitrogen that only the crop can consume. We’re designing products that help growers take a step forward toward more efficient, hassle free productivity with better profitability.

If we zoom in on the corn industry, more than 41 billion bushels are produced each year worldwide. For about 100 years, farmers have relied on nitrogen fertilizer produced via the industrial Haber-Bosch process to feed their crops. While it has been effective, it is not a sustainable approach. Some of it stays with the crops and does its job, while the rest volatilizes into the air and leaches into waterways, polluting our drinking water and contributing to harmful algal blooms. Additionally, extensive use of synthetic chemical fertilizers has negatively affected the soil microbiome and the health of our soil, causing microbes with the natural ability to produce nitrogen to fall dormant.

When we talk about soil health, we’re talking about a much bigger shift from the idea that soil is an inert medium to one that really focuses on the biological component of the soil. There are tens of thousands of different microbes that live in just a pinch of soil, and many of them have important work to do, whether that’s capturing carbon; breaking down organic matter; or in the case of Pivot Bio PROVEN™, creating nitrogen for plants daily.

By focusing on the microbes that convert atmospheric nitrogen to biologically available nitrogen, Pivot Bio has discovered a new crop nutrition tool for farmers. Pivot Bio PROVEN™, our first product, is specifically designed for corn, as it is one of the largest global commodity cereal crops and requires a significant amount of nitrogen to grow and thrive. When farmers use Pivot Bio PROVEN™ in-furrow at the same time they plant the seed, they apply a nitrogen source that grows with the plant and sticks around regardless of the weather conditions. Our product gives farmers the confidence that the corn plant will receive the nitrogen it needs throughout the growing cycle, which reduces variability across an entire field.

Farmers want to improve their land with every harvest so that they can pass a productive, healthy farm on to the next generation. The simple truth, however, is they also need to profit from every harvest so that they remain in business. We’re proud to say that Pivot Bio PROVEN™ can help. It is an environmentally sound and economic choice.

There are 90 million acres of corn in the U.S. alone, and today’s corn depends on nitrogen to produce mature, high-yielding crops. It’s estimated that an acre of corn requires about one pound of nitrogen daily during its early growth stages. Unlike traditional nitrogen fertilizer that washes away, Pivot Bio PROVEN™ stays on the roots of the corn, applying nitrogen daily as the corn matures, especially as it pollinates and the kernels fill out. The traditional synthetic nitrogen fertilizer farmers have available to them today sits in the soil and is often washed into our waterways during heavy rainfall or volatilizes into the air as a greenhouse gas 300x more potent than carbon dioxide. Aside from the environmental impacts runaway fertilizer has on our air and water, farmers lose money as their nitrogen investment is washed away. The notable advantage Pivot Bio PROVEN™ has over synthetic nitrogen fertilizer is that the microbes adhere to the roots of the corn plant and will not run off due to extreme weather conditions. This ensures a more reliable and consistent method for delivering plant nutrition. By replacing just 25 lb of fertilizer with Pivot Bio’s microbes, farmers can ensure their crops receive a daily dose of nitrogen and better yet, keep our water and air clean.

Farmers always keep the environmental and financial health of their operations as part of the business decision-making process. Farmers will adopt Pivot Bio PROVEN™ as checks both the environmental and financial box. The farmers who used our product in 2018 and plan to purchase it on a commercial scale next year are confident it works – applying nitrogen to their corn daily throughout the growing season. No longer do they have to worry about losing money through traditional fertilizer application where more than 50 percent of it is washed away and does not remain on the crop.

Congratulations on the $70 million Series B investment round with Breakthrough Energy Ventures and Temasek, along with the recent announcement of your collaboration with Bayer. Can you tell us what is on the horizon for Pivot Bio over the next 12 months?
We are thrilled to have such a strong group of investors backing the company as we ramp up commercial availability of Pivot Bio PROVEN™ in 2019. Our product has approval in 16 states across the U.S., and many of our first customers are the farmers who participated in our 2018 Intent to Pivot beta-testing program. In addition to our first generation product, we’re pleased to have partnerships in place that support expansion of our product line into new crops like wheat and rice.  For instance, we are working with Bayer to develop Bradyrhizobium strains with enhanced nitrogen production for U.S. soybean growers. Creating innovative solutions that help farmers be more productive, while reducing their environmental footprint is our way to enable the microbiome as a cornerstone of an agricultural revolution.

What do you see as the biggest challenge in developing and commercialising your product?  Who or what could make a real difference to Pivot Bio’s success?
Like any new product on the market, Pivot Bio must earn the trust of its customers. To do this, we are ramping up to work closely with each of our new customers in a successful partnership. Our customers tell us that they are ready for a new crop nutrition tool that helps them produce enough food while increasing efficiency and sustainability practices on the farm.
Right now, our main focus is to provide customers and prospects all the information they need to make the best choice for their land. We’re in the midst of compiling harvest data from 2018 to share and continue to test the environmental footprint of our product on different soil types.

We will be the go-to nitrogen source for farmers. To achieve this, we’ve ensured our product is easy to apply and to integrate with existing farming practices. Looking ahead, we are already considering the next generation of our microbes in the form of a seed coating that is on every every corn seed planted. Our success hinges on the success of our farmers, and we’re excited to give farmers another tool to maximize their productivity while minimizing the environmental footprint.

Look out for Karsten Temme speaking at the World Agri-Tech Innovation Summit, San Francisco, March 20 on ‘Soil Health: How Can We Fast-Track the Adoption of Solutions to Save the  Planet?’ at 11.45am. Stay up to date with Pivot Bio news at www.pivotbio.com or follow them on Twitter and LinkedIn.