Adrián Ferrero: Improving soil health with ag-tech
While farmers spend billions of dollars each year in crop inputs, many are missing biomarkers that can cost them up to 30% in total value. The ag-tech startup Biome Makers is using new technologies like DNA sequencing and artificial intelligence in agriculture to improve soil health and crop production on-farm. How healthy is the microbial activity of your soil?
The following is an edited transcript of Kara Keeton’s interview with Adrián Ferrero. Click below to hear the full audio.
Kara: I'm here today with Adrián Ferrero, co-founder and CEO of Biome Makers, one of the Pearse Lyons Accelerators presenting at ONE: The Alltech Ideas Conference in 2019. Thank you for coming today, Adrián.
Adrián: My pleasure to be here.
Kara: Adrián, I wanted to know a little bit more about Biome Makers and how your company was founded.
Adrián: Biome Makers is a company that started in San Francisco in May 2015, founded by two Spanish guys: Alberto Acedo and myself. We traveled from Spain with a partner, Illumina. We were the first non-American company selected by the Illumina Accelerator Program. In that moment, we started developing our technology. That gave us, also, the chance to test it in the real field with clients all around California.
Kara: The technology you speak of is an artificial intelligence system to measure soil health using the microbiome as a biomarker. Explain this to me.
Adrián: Well, we grew up in vineyards in Spain, so agriculture is very important. It was very important in our vineyards. We were fully aware that the farmers were missing biomarkers to really understand what is happening. Nobody was telling them, so the information, the data, accessible for them was very limited and did not provide a full picture.
So, by looking at the community of microbes that impacts everything that is happening in the field — not just in the soil, because the soil has living organisms that take an active role in agriculture, and that's something that we haven't been able to take a look at in the past years, but now, because we have DNA sequencing to profile the whole spectrum of microbes, and then, artificial intelligence to process this amount of information, this amount of data and benefits from other kinds of data sources — we can provide that functional interpretation of the microbes. That means that we can look at the microbes and know what is happening in the field in order to make better decisions related to, mainly, inputs. That means crop protection and fertilization.
Kara: So, this technology allows you to work with farmers to look at their soil productivity and implement new procedures to help improve production on the farm, correct?
Adrián: Yeah. Every year, U.S. farmers spend around $40 billion, which is a huge amount of money, in crop inputs. And still, around 30% of the crop value is wasted because of different problems. That means that the products they are using are not working pretty well. If they can optimize their inputs that they put in the soil, and those inputs support the productivity of the agriculture or the farm and also sustain and boost the life of the soil, that is going to be very good because, in the end, soil is the most valuable asset they have for their economic activity. That's what we're helping them with. First, they know or they unveil what the soil needs, and then, what they want to know is which is the right product for them. This is something we are doing with companies: delivering solutions into the market.
Kara: So, you currently have field studies going on and research trials with the system, correct?
Adrián: Right. We have over 250 growers already working with us, monitoring their soil status, knowing what their soil needs, how alive the soil is. On the other hand, we are working, and we started last year with our input producers — so that means Alltech or Bayer Crop Science or small bio-fertilizing companies. Those are the kinds of trials we're doing, because that was another dimension; nobody knew the real effect of the products that they are using in the soil. It's like we're taking pills and drugs and we don't know what's going to happen in our body. Our technology can help bring transparency to this, and that's what we're doing.
Kara: Are these trials taking place just in the United States, or are they around the world?
Adrián: Yeah. We are running trials right now mainly in California, but also here in Kentucky, also in Spain, in France, and in Mexico. Those are the six (places) where we're developing pilots, but what is more interesting is which kind of crops we're working with, because we started working in vineyards in the wine industry. It's amazing. It's huge, the lack of data to really deliver better products and different wines in the market. By knowing what is happening in the vineyard, this is very useful for them. So, in vineyards, we started, and we started to expand to other crops. Right now, we are working with almonds, strawberries, potatoes, corn, soy and apples.
Kara: That is amazing. Working with a variety of crops allows you to look at different types of production. What benefit can this system bring to the different types of crops and to the different areas of the world when you're looking at the biomarkers?
Adrián: Let me just give you an example of what we're experiencing now with sugarcane in Mexico. There are different regions with different productivity. The deal between two regions were extremely different — so, around 30% difference. After looking at the microbiome in the soil, we identified the pattern that linked to their productivity. Now, what we are doing with this client is working with different solutions to see if we can get up to 5% increase, which is going to have a huge impact on the productivity and the revenues that this grower is going to get at the end of the season.
We can impact, first, in the cost, in the expenses that the growers are having in their different inputs. So, depending on the crops, they might be spending over $2,000 per acre in different inputs. That's a lot of money, and you want that money to be meaningful. Then, on the crop protection side, you want to use target solutions for the risk on diseases that you have. You don't want to spray fungicide in a vineyard, for instance, killing all the fungal species, including the yeast doing something unique during the wine-making process that is going to leave some flavor or taste in that way.
Kara: Biome Makers was the first startup chosen to join a new agricultural innovation space in California. What impact did this move have on your research, and how did working with Bayer Crop Sciences in this initiative impact your company?
Adrián: For us, there was a demonstration. There was a growing interest by the solution providers in knowing what are the impacts of their products in the soil. As I mentioned before, there is a new wave of biological products landing into the market, so the growers don't have enough information; they're not going to know which product is the right one for them. By working with companies such as Bayer or Alltech or others, we are able to really know what are the specific effects of the products so we can match specific soil needs related to crop needs, and also location needs, for a specific crop in a specific location. This is the right product.
That's what we're working with a lot, and this has a huge impact. If companies like Bayer Crop Science are relying on our technology to really know what is happening with the solutions that they are delivering to the market, for us as a startup, this is very important.
Kara: Your company was selected for the Pearse Lyons Accelerator Program. What has this experience been like for you and your company, and how did you come across this opportunity?
Adrián: Well, right now, the information just flows very easily, so it was very easy to know where the opportunity was. Having the chance to partner or to connect with Alltech team through the Pearse Lyons Accelerator, that was very interesting for us because, right now, we are working with 14 different solution providers, and we wanted the most innovative companies to also start working with us. With the Pearse Lyons Accelerator, we have started running, in the last hundred days, different trials, different pilots, testing their products differently in different crops, and this is very successful.
On top of that, the work done by Dogpatch Labs in Ireland to improve and to fine-tune the pitch and the market strategy, and some advice from their leaders, the Alltech leaders, on the commercialization, distribution of how to manage the team and grow the company, it has been very useful for me as a founder who has the responsibility to really bring Biome Makers to the next level.
Kara: Well, now I understand that your interest in microbiology is not limited to just agricultural production. You are also co-founder of AC-Gen Reading Life, a biotech company with a biomedical focus. Can you tell me a little bit about this company?
Adrián: Yeah. Biome Makers is our second successful startup. The first experience that Alberto Acedo and myself had was in Spain, also using the same technology of DNA sequencing, but in this case, instead of using it to profile the microbes in the soil, we are looking at the different mutations that humans have in order to help doctors to really know what was the real, better solution. This is the personalized medicine. We built, in 2012, the first genetic diagnostic center specializing in DNA sequencing in Spain, and with that company, we won a lot of awards and recognition from the Spanish government, the European Commission. Even the MIT Technology Review also awarded us as best entrepreneurs/innovators.
Kara: So, helping plants and animals with your research, where do you see the future of Biome Makers in the next five to ten years?
Adrián: Well, right now, we need to receive the samples in our labs. We have dual locations, one in Europe, another one in California, in West Sacramento. What we see in the future is that digitalization of biology probably is not going to happen in our lab; it's going to happen on-site. So, the different machines, the robots, all the devices that are available for farmers, they're going to definitely digitalize the biology, but there will be some apps and systems to process the data and deliver the meaningful information on to take action. That's where we're working very hard on understanding all the connections between the different microbes in this network of living beings, all the patterns, and also the predictive power of this system. That's what we are focusing on.
Kara: Well, thank you for joining us today, Adrián.
Adrián: That's my pleasure. Thank you very much for inviting us.
Kara: This was Adrián Ferrero, co-founder and CEO of Biome Makers.