An Interview with Tom Laurita, CEO, NewLeaf Symbiotics
Firstly, what do you see as the most exciting business opportunity over the next 3-5 years? Where do you think major growth will be found?
I think 3-5 years is the right time frame to consider. 10 years out we may see technologies emerging in the agricultural market based on gene editing and RNAi breakthroughs, but before that it is clear that biologicals (microbials) represent the greatest upside. We see the interface of biologicals with traits and plant gene regulation as particularly promising.
Which specific sectors of agricultural technology will show fastest growth and why?
The complementary use of biologicals with existing chemical treatments to enhance plant heath and improve water and nutrient uptake. This combination can reduce chemical use in the short term. The ultimate agricultural consumer is my family and yours. People all over the world are clamouring for industry to become environmentally responsible and that message is moving the market. We must do more with less.
What are the main obstacles to this growth? What is the biggest challenge in facing agricultural technology companies in achieving market penetration?
The plant microbiome is one of the most complex systems on earth and we are just beginning to understand how that system works. Companies are searching for efficient methods to screen thousands of microbes for hundreds of effects in varied (and changing) agronomic environments. So the immediate key to success is choosing the right discovery and product development approach. Market penetration is dictated by access to existing distribution channels that extend their reach to end users (growers), and by ease of adoption for those end users.
How are you / your company addressing these challenges? Tell me a bit more about your approach?
Early on we chose to develop deep knowledge and IP around a ubiquitous genus of bacteria and to use that position to build our product pipeline. It turns out that we are mining a particularly rich vein that is allowing us to enter the market in 2016 through private label channels. Two years ago we acquired Intuitive Genomics, a cutting-edge genomics company with which we were successfully collaborating. Together we have created the proprietary Prescriptive Biologics™ Knowledgebase, a bioinformatics platform for predictive association of genotypes from our large microbe collection with beneficial agronomic phenotypes. So short-term we have already advanced products to the market, and simultaneously we’ve built a massive screening platform that has identified many product candidates for the longer term.
How do you see biological solutions sitting alongside more conventional agrochemicals?
This is a perfect fit and defines one of our key areas of product focus. We have proven that our biological products can increase yield by enhancing plant health and mitigating stress and predation. But in many cases the market opportunity lies in complementing traditional chemistries by reducing the need for agrochemical application to maintain or increase yield.
How important are “big data” and advances in data analytics in accelerating the development and adoption of new biological solutions in Ag?
Extremely important. Thus far “big data” in Ag has mainly meant Precision Agriculture -increasing farming efficiency through improved measurement of environmental and field conditions. But the real leverage comes from linking these technologies to the genomics revolution. Our bioinformatics approach is allowing us to create prescriptive solutions and plumb the microbiome in ways that were impossible even 5 years ago. As the climate changes this capability will become indispensable.
Are there any other sectors within agriculture where you would like to see more innovation? In your opinion what’s ripe for disruption?
The investment community has figured out that agriculture is one of the biggest opportunities for disruption because of its scale and importance. Disruption is already happening but investors need a bit more patience than in some other sectors. Among the areas where we see immediate opportunity are water and nutrient use efficiency, especially in nitrogen use efficiency gains beyond genetics.
In your view, which countries/regions have the potential to become hubs for agricultural innovation? Where do you see the next wave of new technologies emerging?
India :Information technology, Management technology and Equipment technology
China: The Chinese public is starting to demand sustainability and responsibility from food producers
There is huge investor interest in ag-tech start-ups. If you had to name a company as “one to watch” over the next 12 months, who would it be?
Trying to be objective, I have to say that NewLeaf Symbiotics is going to surprise a lot of people in the next 12 months. But there are other good companies out there working in biologicals and this is certainly not a zero sum game. We think Symbiota, Bioconsortia, and AgBiome are doing good work in the space too.
What are your plans for NewLeaf Symbiotics over the next 12 months, and why is the World Agri-Tech Investment Summit important to this strategy?
NewLeaf Symbiotics plans to introduce its first products to the market in 2016. We will also make our first EPA submission. Our foundational production patent was granted in the US in December 2015, and we expect other patents to issue during 2016. We have conducted successful field trials of multiple products and are expanding this process substantially. Our Prescriptive Biologics Knowledgebase will be fully implemented this year. World Agri-Tech is a great platform for us to increase collaboration and interaction with the investment community, and the timing works well for us.
Tom Laurita will be discussing these issues in more depth at the World Agri-Tech Investment Summit, San Francisco on March 15-17, 2016.