Startup raises $70 million to sell microbes and drastically cut greenhouse-gas emissions from farming

Climbing into a tractor.
Climbing into a tractor.
Image: AP Photo/Thibault Camus
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Pivot Bio, a California-based startup developing more environmentally friendly fertilizers, today announced it has raised $70 million in a new funding round. The lead investor is Breakthrough Energy Ventures, a $1 billion fund created in 2016 by a group of billionaires including Bill Gates, Jeff Bezos, and Jack Ma. Last week, Quartz reported the fund’s first investments, a list of nine companies including Pivot Bio.

A wealthier and more populous planet means using more fertilizers to whet a growing appetite. But crops don’t absorb all the fertilizers mixed in the soil. The excess chemicals end up in the environment, causing problems like algal blooms and the release of potent greenhouse gases.

For example, excess synthetic nitrogen fertilizers release nitrous oxide, which, when in the Earth’s atmosphere, absorb some 300 times as much heat as carbon dioxide. As of 2012 (the latest year for which there are records), annual nitrous-oxide emissions from agricultural soils had greenhouse-gas effects equivalent to about 2 billion metric tons of carbon-dioxide emissions. That accounted for about 6% of total global emissions that year, according to the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization. Worse still, yearly nitrous-oxide emissions grew more than 30% between 1990 and 2012 and are projected to grow another 4% between 2012 and 2030.

In the roots of many crops, tiny bacteria, such as those in the azotobacter genus, live in a symbiotic relationship with the plant. The bacteria eat sugars made by the plant. In return, they convert nitrogen in the air to a form the plant can absorb. Synthetic nitrogen fertilizers provide a usable form of nitrogen to the plant directly, rendering the bacteria useless. As a result, the bacteria become dormant or die out.

Pivot Bio has found a way to enhance the job nature does. The company collected samples from many kinds of soils, analyzed the DNA of nitrogen-fixing bacteria in the samples, and isolated the genetic pathways that control the bacteria’s useful mechanisms. They then genetically modified the bacteria to turn off the switch that made them go dormant in presence of synthetic fertilizers. This step was necessary because, even if the farmers didn’t use nitrogen fertilizers in this year’s production, there would inevitably be some remaining in the soil from previous years’ usage. It meant that Pivot Bio’s proprietary bacteria could build a symbiotic relationship with the crop regardless of whether or not farmers apply synthetic fertilizers.

According to the startup, field trials conducted in 2018 showed that corn farmers were able to use Pivot Bio’s bacteria to reduce nitrogen fertilizer use by as much as 25%. The microbial solution was used while planting the crop, and the symbiotic relationship meant the bacteria adhered to the roots of the corn plant as it grew. Better still, because the bacteria grew in number as the crop grew in size, farmers had to use the formulation only once compared to adding synthetic nitrogen fertilizers multiple times during that phase.

“If every corn farmer in the US were to use Pivot Bio’s microbes, the reduction in nitrogen emissions alone would be equivalent to taking about 1 million cars off the road,” CEO Karsten Temme said.

Temme added that the money raised in the Series B funding round will be used to scale up operations in 2019, when Pivot Bio will begin to sell its liquid microbial formulation to US farmers. Currently, the product consists of a single strain of bacteria that can only be used for corn, but BEV’s funding will also enable the startup to research new strains and develop products for other crops.

This article was updated to quantify the impact of Pivot Bio’s microbes on nitrogen fertilizer use.