Agri-biotech company makes Davis its home

By From page A9 | April 06, 2014

Marcus Meadows-SmithW

Marcus Meadows-Smith is the CEO of Davis' newest biotech company, BioConsortia. Courtesy photo

A newly formed agri-bioscience company will soon bring about 10 jobs to Davis to explore the use of microbes to improve fertilizer efficiency and yield in crops in an effort to potentially replace chemicals to achieve these results.

The company, BioConsortia, will be headed by newly appointed CEO Marcus Meadows-Smith, who ran Davis-based AgraQuest from 2008 to 2012. That company created about 50 jobs in the Davis area before it was bought by Bayer CropScience for just shy of half a billion dollars.

BioConsortia choosing to locate in Davis continues a trend highlighting the importance of being near a major agricultural research institution,” said Rob White, chief innovation officer for the city of Davis. “Their market potential could result in several hundred employees in a very short period of time (years). The city wants to do whatever we can to help with their success.”

BioConsortia works with groups of nongenetically modified and EPA-approved microbes applied as seed treatments and to the soil, said Meadows-Smith, adding to the microbial community already in the soil to “create a beneficial microbiome that makes the plant more efficient.”

Using microbes for agricultural purposes is not a new idea.

The bacteria Bacillus thuringiensis was discovered to be a microbial insecticide as early as 1901 and has been used since in agriculture, forestry and medicine, according to a recent review in Current Opinion in Biotechnology.

To date, more than 100 bioinsecticides of the species Bacillus thuringiensis alone have been developed and other species of the genus Bacillus are a common ingredient in many products currently on the market. Bacillus is also used for its biofungicidal and biofertilizing properties.

BioConsortia’s focus is on improving fertilizer efficiency and increasing yield. The global market value of the fertilizer industry is likely to rise to more than $185 billion by 2019.

While BioConsortia is not giving away any proprietary information as to what kinds of microbes are in its products, Meadows-Smith said the company is working with a “wide array of microbes” that are regulated by the EPA and work equally well with crops that are genetically modified or conventional.

In development are products that can complement, replace or reduce chemical use, he added, by helping “plants release and better utilize the fertilizers already available in the organic and mineral content of the soil, thereby reducing the need for additional synthetic fertilizers.”

More specifically, microbes can solubilize previously insoluble forms of fertilizer naturally locked into the soil, as well as induce the growth of roots to improve nutrient uptake, he said.

UC Davis plant pathologist Johan Leveau, who is not affiliated with BioConsortia, sees potential for such products.

Given that certain chemicals will be discontinued, and in the absence of many alternatives, I think there is going to be quite a bit of interest in the application of these biological control products, by themselves or in combination with chemicals the use of which continues to be allowed for plant protection,” Leveau said in an email.

BioConsortia is the parent of BioDiscovery, based in New Zealand, where successful field trials were seen last year on maize crops.

The company plans to expand into the microbial fertilizer market initially for use on large row crops like corn and soybean and eventually into tomatoes and brassicas among others.

The company is running trials in temporary facilities and has raised about $15 million for permanent laboratory space in Davis, which should be established by the end of June, Meadows-Smith said.

We’re starting with some of the hiring now,” he said.

Local jobs would include a small team of business developers as well as junior and senior researchers to run research experiments. Contract trials would be held at various locations throughout the United States.

Reach Jason McAlister at [email protected] or 530-747-8051.

Jason McAlister

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