Innovator Spotlight: Biome Makers Creates Ag Solutions with Micoorganisms
Biome Makers is a biotech company that recently relocated from the Bay Area to West Sacramento. Biome Makers specializes in understanding the microbiome – the microlife – around agriculture, in order to improve agricultural production and quality. These improvements can happen when chemicals are reduced and diseases are decreased. Biome Makers creates these solutions to agricultural issues by utilizing microorganisms.
Co-founders Adrián Ferrero and Alberto Acedo met as boys in judo class in La Bañeza, Spain, and have been close friends ever since. Their initial startup was the first genetic diagnostic lab for human health in Spain, which used next generation sequencing.
We recently spoke with co-founders Adrián Ferrero and Alberto Acedo, to learn more about Biome Maker and the company’s unique products.
How did your company come to be?
Adrián: Alberto and I have been friends since we were 5 years old; we’re from the same city in Spain. We met practicing judo, and we started building our friendship. Ten years ago we decided to go into business together, collaborating our skills. Alberto had his PhD in molecular biology, specializing in DNA Next Generation Sequencing, and I have a Masters in economic science and environmental technology. So the first startup that we built was based in Spain: the first genetic diagnostic center focused on human diseases, mainly hereditary cancer using DNA sequencing to make diagnostics.
With Biome Makers, we decided to apply the same technology together with intelligent computing technology to innovate in the field of agriculture. That happened in 2015 when we moved to San Francisco, because we joined Illumina’s accelerator program. Illumina is the biggest biotech company in the U.S. and we were the first non-American company selected by them. In May 2015 we decided to create Biome Makers and started developing and piloting our technology, specifically for use in the wine industry. That was the first market we could provide value to, by unveiling the microbes.
At the moment, your focus is on the wine industry. Where are your clients?
Adrián: We are currently active in 18 different countries, but most of our clients are in California. Specifically from Napa, Sonoma, the Russian River, and now since we’ve moved our lab to West Sacramento (invited by Bayer Crop Science) we are starting to have clients in the Central Valley. We also have clients in Oregon state, Washington state, and we also have clients in Europe as well. But most of them are in California. We are currently working with more than 250 wineries.
And are you hoping to expand to other agricultural sectors as well?
Adrián: Of course! That’s a natural next step once we’ve demonstrated that there is interest in using this technology to better understand the impact of the microbes in farming, and how to make predictions and identify the patterns of the microbiome marked by the microbes. And we are expanding to other crops. We have been working with corn, soybeans, sugarcane and apples. And the idea is to cover all crops.
Alberto: Right now we are not only working on a prediction diagnostic tool, that’s WineSeq, but also our new product called BeCrop. We are working to help companies that develop specific ag-inputs (fertilizers, crop protection products, etc.) to develop the most accurate products for the specific problems that we can identify with our diagnostic tools. This kind of service is named Gheom.
Adrián: So the expansion has been: WineSeq – the product specifically designed for the wine industry; then BeCrop, which is the replication of WineSeq for any other crop; and then we have Gheom with the qualifying rapid acting input effect evaluation system.
And the growth has happened rather quickly?
Adrián: Yeah, in three years we have grown a lot in terms of clients, revenue and people. Our team right now has twenty members, with a combination of different skills, from genetics to agronomy, to software engineers, bioinfomaticians, and communication people so we have a pretty nice pool of talent. Half of them are PhD level. Everything we do is in-house, from defining the sample crop protocol, the genetic sequencing, all the computing and algorithms that we use, even the software and full online development.
Is there significant competition in this industry or are you the only folks in the game at this point?
Adrián: There are other people providing tests, but not like whole microbiome profiling services. Let’s say other kinds of analytics for farmers, and most of them combine work through the microbiome. They are kind of pharma companies for agriculture which is a completely different business model than ours.
We are giving back results to the farmers. So farmers can send us a sample and we are going to tell them how alive it is, let’s say the biodiversity status of their soil, what’s the health status of the soil, what the risk of disease is, what are the diseases predicting their crop, and also what the nutritional pathway that their soil can accumulate.
Can you share a success story of one client?
Adrián: We have actually released a small book with all of our success cases. One client that had an area of their farm with a crop production yield problem. So they contacted us and said “Hey can you help us?” So we told them if you want we can test that area but we encourage you should also test a healthy area so we can compare. What we discovered is that the risk of having the disease that attacked the crop was the same in all of the farm. So they had a high risk of a disease, but there was only symptomatology in a certain area. Then we look at the biocontrol species, call it the “good guys” or the “police” controlling the bad guys, and we realized that they were only living in the area where there was no symptomatology. And the reason was that there was a river closer to this area and the humidity was higher there. So the farmer took the action of starting to irrigate the upper area, and so he was able to solve the problem because naturally the biocontrol species was able to populate this other area and they were able to save the crop for that year. That happened last year.
Alberto: Another great story was applying our machine learning system after the Napa fires last year, the fires produced not only smoke problems into the flavor of the wine, they produced a lot of toxins after wood combustion. We identified a bacteria from Napa Valley that is able to degrade those toxins very fast. Now we try to apply this bacteria as an ingredient in fertilizers for other kinds of toxins produced by these carbon combustion problems.
Going forward, as you broaden the scope of agricultural clients, how will you reach beyond the wine industry?
Adrián: We have decided to start in crops where we can provide greater value. And those are the crops that are plant crops because if you have a problem or you have to do specific actions in those fields, the impact for the activity, like for a walnut orchard you have to first do all the replanting and then wait three years for that tree to become productive. So specialty plant crops are like the natural evolution from the high value crops, where we can also provide a lot of value by giving them meaningful information on what the soil contains. But the reality is that growers have been demanding replicating technology for their specialty crop process, so that is the strategy that we are following.
The reason we decided to expand to sugarcane is because the largest sugarcane producer in Mexico wanted to have this technology, so we made an agreement and we’ve started doing it for them.
Tell us about your recent relocation to West Sacramento in March of 2018?
Adrián: Initially we were curious about new areas and we were looking around. We got in touch with the greater Sacramento Economic Council and they supported us a lot, made a lot of connections helping us to identify the talent in the region, and that was great support. All agriculture activity is centered around us [in West Sacramento].
Alberto: We applied last year for the Bayer Crop Science program for startups, and we were very happy to be selected and to provide our technology to improve the products they can develop.
Adrián: Bayer Crop Science invited us to relocate to their collaborator space: brand new wet lab facilities for start-ups such as ours. This location is only ten miles from [UC] Davis where we can find great talent easily, and one hour away from wine country which is our initial market. We have new clients and more clients because of that. It’s great because the cost of living in San Francisco and the Bay Area [is so high], and it helped bring down our costs, and it’s better for our lifestyle.
So even though you are in Bayer’s facility, Biome Makers is fully independent?
Adrián: Yes. Bayer is our client. The Greater Sacramento Economic Council helped us to find the agreement. But we are fully independent, and we are very serious about confidentiality, especially of our clients. The wineries and organic farmers were concerned about big pharma, but it’s just a location, its facility sharing.
Is there anything else you’d like to share about Biome Makers?
Adrián: To simplify, we are looking at a new pool of data which is the microbiome, the microbiome of the soil, and with that information we are able to predict and improve what is happening in the field. We have always had a pool – an army – of allies that are the microbes, that have been supporting life since the beginning, so life in the earth was possible because the microbes were there working and doing what they are programmed to be doing. This proves that after all this time, they have been helping us. But we were not able to even talk to them, not even see them. So what we have created, is the technology that is able to first, see them and second, translate what the microbes are telling us.
In June of 2018, Biome Makers Inc. was chosen as the Best Agtech Startup by Nikkei in Japan, and they’ve been named finalists in the 3rd Annual Sacramento Region Innovation Awards. Winners will be announced on November 1, 2018.
To learn more about seeing soil microbes, and understanding what they can tell us, go to biomemakers.com.
New Innovator Spotlights will appear soon, featuring the innovators and change makers in the sustainable food and ag innovation space. If you know of someone we should be covering, please email us at firstname.lastname@example.org
About the author: Andrea Thompson has a culinary arts and writing background and is the former editor of edibleSacramento magazine.