Next-gen fertiliser start-up gets funding from Temasek, DCVC

A Pivot Bio scientist in Berkeley, California, using a spectrometer to measure acetylene reduction activity in a plant sample. The start-up, which says its products take microbes that naturally occur in crop soils and use them to convert atmospheric
A Pivot Bio scientist in Berkeley, California, using a spectrometer to measure acetylene reduction activity in a plant sample. The start-up, which says its products take microbes that naturally occur in crop soils and use them to convert atmospheric nitrogen into ammonia before feeding it to plants, aims to replace synthetic fertilisers. PHOTO: REUTERS

A start-up born in the lab of University of California, Berkeley, is aiming to replace synthetic fertilisers that contribute to greenhouse gases and so-called "dead zones" in the ocean.

Pivot Bio's products use microbes to create and feed nitrogen to corn and wheat crops. It said on Monday that it has raised US$430 million (S$588 million) in a funding round led by Silicon Valley venture capital firm DCVC and Singapore's Temasek, bringing total funding to US$600 million. The company's valuation is now near US$2 billion.

"Our pitch to growers today is, instead of spending a dollar on nitrogen fertiliser, spend a dollar on Pivot's nitrogen," said Mr Karsten Temme, Pivot Bio's co-founder and chief executive, about how their products are already cost-competitive.

He said that while synthetic fertilisers have to be separately applied during the growth of the crop, adding to extra labour costs, Pivot's liquid product is applied with the seed at the time of planting and the microbes do the work from there.

That has helped Pivot treble its sales this year, with wheat and corn farmers in the United States using it on millions of acres of fields, said Mr Temme. He declined to give the exact acreage but said it was four times larger this year than last year.

Pivot Bio says its products take microbes that naturally occur in crop soils and use them to convert atmospheric nitrogen into ammonia before feeding it to plants, a process that synthetic nitrogen has shut off.

What makes identifying that microbe possible today is cheaper, faster computing power, said Mr Matt Ocko, co-managing partner of DCVC, which was one of the first investors in Pivot Bio.

"We don't fund raw science bubbling away on a bench top. We need to see the commercialisation path," said Mr Ocko, who has several other deep-tech investments that have also been made possible with computing developments.

While synthetic nitrogen was also a breakthrough in science and a profitable business when it was developed over a century ago, it came at a cost to the water, air and soil, said Mr Ocko.

According to the International Fertiliser Association's 2017 report, about half of the world's synthetic nitrogen is used for fertilising corn, wheat and rice, a roughly US$60 billion market.

Pivot is developing a fertiliser product for rice as well.

Crunching numbers from a US Environmental Protection Agency report, Pivot Bio says 7 per cent of greenhouse gases are produced by synthetic nitrogen fertiliser, when considering manufacturing and nitrous oxide emissions from the fertilisers on the farm. Its run-offs have also harmed water supplies.

The new funding will help Pivot Bio expand to other countries as well as continue to improve the efficiency of the liquid microbe products, said Mr Temme.

REUTERS

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 21, 2021, with the headline 'Next-gen fertiliser start-up gets funding from Temasek, DCVC'. Subscribe