Davis-based Marrone Bio Innovations is expanding, thanks to a partnership with the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which was hailed by Under Secretary Catherine Woteki when she toured the Davis business earlier this month.
The March 22 visit gave Woteki a first-hand look of how both parties have benefited from the USDA Agricultural Research Service. Grandevo, a new bioinsecticide created by Marrone Bio Innovations, owes everything to the discovery of a microbe at the USDA Agricutural Research Service center in Maryland.
Chromobacterium, as that microbe is called, was acquired in 2009 for use in local development through the USDA’s technology transfer program. A derivative of that microbe made possible the scale-up and commercialization of Grandevo. USDA will profit financially in the use of the licensed microbe.
Rich Fedigan, director of Marrone Bio Innovations’ marketing, said the partnership is about more than just the money. He said the team has become a real success story for the USDA’s technology transfer program.
“One of the things USDA looks at is creating rural jobs,” he added. “Developing Grandevo has allowed us to grow from two employees to well over 100 here in Davis, and more in the field.”
Grandevo, which is the first new broad-spectrum microbial insecticide to enter the market in nearly 50 years, went from non-existence to a fully fledged commercial product within three years. A once-shuttered biodiesel plant in rural Michigan is now being retrofitted — set to come online later this year — to produce Grandevo.
Marrone Bio Innovations will begin by hiring more than 20 employees to operate that plant, and plans to double its workforce both in Davis and in Michigan within the next three years. Woteki said this growth has been a tangible benefit of the partnership.
“What MBI has done with Grandevo is a perfect example of how USDA seeks to leverage its basic research to promote jobs and economic growth in our expanding, bio-based economy,” she said.
Marrone Bio Innovations markets naturally occurring biopesticides of other sorts as well, and will produce those alongside Grandevo at the new plant. The company, which was founded by Pam Marrone in 2006, focuses on natural organisms that can battle plant diseases and pests.
Besides agriculture, MBI also does water treatment with its Zequanox product, a non-chemical control of invasive zebra and quagga mussels. Another product is Regalia, an advanced biofungicide that triggers a plant’s natural defenses to control a broad spectrum of diseases.
To see how it’s all developed, Woteki toured the grounds of the the MBI biopesticide discovery and development lab at 2121 Second St. She was joined by Rich Rominger, MBI’s board chairman, and Marrone, founder and CEO. Rominger, a Winters resident, was deputy secretary of the USDA under President Clinton.
Though the Davis lab does no commercial production, it includes a fermentation pilot plant. There, a mix of full-time employees and paid UC Davis interns inoculate cultures of micro-organisms. Ana Lucia Cordova led the group through the lab.
“That’s Grandevo you’re smelling right now,” Cordova said with a laugh as the group entered a pungent room.
She explained that the researchers monitor whether field-collected fungal or bacterial samples have any activity against parasites, which usually can be identified within two weeks. Making it through this phase can be as uncommon as one out of 1,000 organisms.
If so, the organism will move on to fermentation tanks, which is a manufacturing process on a smaller scale. From there, the researchers can tell how long and what nutrients are required in the production of the potential product.
Woteki had plenty of questions for the MBI employees, including why the bubbling tanks of Grandevo had a violet color during fermentation.
At the tour’s end, she expressed her gratitude for the visit. “I couldn’t be more appreciative of the chance to see this amazing work,” Woteki said.
— Reach Brett Johnson at [email protected] or 530-747-8052. Follow him on Twitter at @ReporterBrett