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that crops treated with the Pivot product had higher yields than untreated plants, Bloch says. She added that scientists are still gathering data on the broader effects of the microbial treatment but so far, Pivot has not observed any negative effects on the overall plant microbiome.
A number of large ag companies and startups are pouring hundreds of millions of dollars into microbial R&D. Boston-based Indigo Ag has raised more than $650 million since its 2014 inception, and has commercialized 19 microbial products across five crops to date. CEO David Perry has described Indigo’s approach as screening the plant microbiome for promising microbes, and then using software to predict and understand how the microbes help the plant. Drought tolerance was Indigo’s first target. When the company closed its most recent investment last month, a $250 million Series E round, Perry reiterated that nitrogen fixation was still among his company’s research programs.
Nitrogen fixation is the first target for Joyn, an alliance between Bayer and Boston-based Ginkgo Bioworks, another heavily funded startup. Working from a library of microbes supplied by Bayer, Joyn aims to use Ginkgo’s synthetic biology technology to engineer nitrogen-fixing microorganisms.
Pivot got its start in 2011 with a grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. The goal at the time was to develop a way to transfer nitrogen-fixing genes from bacteria into plants. But Bloch says Pivot’s co-founders, CEO Karsten Temme and chief scientific officer Alvin Tamsir, soon realized that this approach was decades away from becoming viable. Alternatively, developing nitrogen-fixing microbes is “something that can have a real world impact on a much shorter time scale,” she says.
The Pivot microbial product, which it has named Proven, is meant to be sprayed onto seeds when they are planted. Bloch says the liquid can be added to spraying equipment farmers already have, so it fits into existing farming practices. But she adds that the company is developing a new version that would be offered as a coating on seeds, which would make the product easier for more farmers to adopt. Pivot is also researching applications of its technology to other crops, such as wheat and rice.
Though the U.S. Department of Agriculture has approved Pivot’s microbial product for corn, it also needs approval in each state where it will be used. Pivot says it has approval in several corn-producing Midwestern states and additional approvals are expected later this year and early next year. Pivot plans to sell directly to farmers, a path that Indigo has taken with its microbial products. The San Francisco company has not yet disclosed what it will charge for its microbes, but Bloch says the value goes beyond a dollar for dollar comparison to fertilizer. If the Pivot product can produce enough nitrogen to last the growing season, a farm would save on labor and equipment costs associated with extra applications of fertilizers to fields.
Other investors in Pivot Bio include Data Collective, Monsanto Growth Ventures, Prelude Ventures, and Spruce Capital Partners. Besides the Gates Foundation, Pivot’s early financial support came from the National Science Foundation and the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA).