Killing them softly; controlling insect pests through biology
Earlier this month, we kicked off our pilot JMAPP partner programme, in association with Cranfield University.
As part of our open innovation strategy, we’re working with three pioneering agritech businesses within the programme. Following last week’s interview with Azotic Technologies, it’s time to meet the second… Bionema is a biopesticide technology company, based out of Swansea University. The six year old business is developing chemical free pest control systems, using microorganisms (fungi, bacteria and nematodes) to protect crops from insect damage. We caught up with MD, Dr Minshad A. Ansari, to find out more
So Minshad, tell us how Bionema got started?
The original idea came about a long way back. Previously I was an academic working across India, Belgium, and the UK. After 2005 I was working at Swansea University. I was visiting growers and farmers and always being asked ‘How can we control pests and diseases better without chemicals?’. It was definitely inspiring, making me think, ‘Can we have something nontoxic and better than the chemical pesticides which they are using?’. I developed my thinking around the idea but didn’t really have the resources to take it to where I wanted. So, in 2012, we spun the company out of the university, with Swansea taking a 10% shareholding. In fact, Swansea and the Welsh government have been very supportive. They have both invested in the company. Along with my own time and money, investment has been about £1m to date. We just raised £440,000 equity investment as part of the product development.
Innovation is about solving problems. What is the problem you are trying to solve?
Chemical pesticides have been used to control pests and diseases for over 100 years. But there are very real repercussions in terms of polluting the environment and causing human health issues like brain haemorrhage, birth defects etc. This is all from published data. Our solution is a 100% natural biopesticide based on an insectkilling fungus. Chemicals kill insect pests directly and leave residue in fruits and vegetables, whereas this fungus causes disease to the insect and it dies within 2448 hours without entering the food chain. So, job done.
This is a naturally occurring fungus which you find in soil. You usually find it in untouched soil that has not been cultivated or treated in any way, for example, in natural forests. We’ll collect the soil, analyse it and start isolating any fungi or nematodes that we could develop for pest control.
This fungus is an obligate parasite and only infects insects and nothing else, not humans, not other animals. The fungi also reproduce while on the host and these spores mix with the soil, targeting any fresh hatchlings. But without new hosts to feed off, the fungus won’t reproduce. This makes the prospects of product registration better.
Where’s the market opportunity?
Sometimes you really have a brilliant product but there’s no market.
At a national and EU level, governments want to reduce the use of chemicals. Some of these chemicals are now being phased out and we have a product that can fill the gap immediately. On top of that, consumer demand is increasingly going towards the more organic approach.
The project we are working on here is looking to control a pest called western flower thrips . The thrips attack many different plants, including highvalue crops. For example, it causes £50m damage to UK strawberry and sunflower crops each year. Worldwide, the damage to crops is US$7bn. But it has become resistant to chemical pesticides. There is nothing growers can use. This is just one single pest we are talking about – there are several more out there and no biological product to control this.
Altogether, this means we are bringing in a new product which has a real value in the market.
Who is the competition?
The big players like BASF and Syngenta are still focused on the traditional chemical products. I would say that currently, chemical control accounts for 90% of the market. But the corporates are starting to do things in this area.
Growth in biopesticides is now 45 times higher than growth in chemical pesticides. So, things are changing.
Hopefully, in a few years’ time, you’ll see a number of products registered here in the EU. The US is much more liberal – you can get your product registered within about a year for $100k. But here, you are looking for £23 million and it takes about 35 years. That makes it a difficult decision for any investor. The multinational has the advantage
here in terms of manufacture and supply. That’s why we’re looking to develop this technology with the goal of licencing or transferring it to a larger company with the capacity to take it properly to market.
Tell us about the company’s success so far
There are a number of products in our portfolio. Where you don’t require registration, we have already developed that product. So, in the past year, we developed nine beneficial nematodebased products for the horticulture, turf & amenities and forestry sectors. We also developed five products for the home & garden market.
These products are now ready for the market and we have discussions going on with a few distributors in the UK and other EU countries. Our partners are taking the product to the market and our turnover is increasing. So, for example, last year we did about £80,000. This year, we’re looking at £200,000. If you compare two years back it was £22,000. Our prediction is that by the end of next year, our turnover will be about £500K including EU sales.
Things are really moving now, especially compared to five years or six years back when basically, I was just working all alone. There was no money for a salary. If you put it on a graph, we’ve got a nice straight line going up!
What is the biggest challenge you face bringing this product to market?
Resources and manpower. If you don’t have these, you can’t accelerate your research or push your product further. If you don’t have the manpower, then basically you are just working alone and it will take forever. Somebody else will take your idea and they will be able to commercialise it quicker than you can. You have to be able to commercialise – or at least patent – your technology as quickly as possible.
What do you hope to get out of this collaboration within the JMAPP program?
We weren’t really familiar with Johnson Matthey before this process, so it was a nice surprise to get onto JMAPP!
Hopefully, JM will be able to help us get the technology proven. I’m optimistic because early indicators are very positive. We want to get this piece of work done and then hopefully use JM’s expertise to get the patent filed. Once we’ve done that, we’ll be looking for a further round of funding to help accelerate the product further towards registration.
If JM thinks it’s interesting, hopefully, you will help us in the registration of the product so within 34 years’ time we’ll have it fully in the market.
Where do you see the company 5 years from now?
I think in 5 years’ time we will be selling our technologies to a multinational, taking about £1530 million. We’ll use that money to repay our investors and invest the rest in our pipeline of new products! Thanks to Minshad for his time