Every time an employee of Marrone Bio Innovations goes on vacation, she takes along a sampling kit. If she sees a particularly gross and smelly spot, like a swamp or a rotting log, she takes a piece of it back to the company’s lab and tries to transform it into a new, natural pesticide.
It may sound like a long shot. But one of the company’s newest products, discovered by an employee in a rotting pile of seaweed on a Hawaii beach, is a biopesticide proven to kill worms responsible for $80 billion annually in crop damage.
“We seem to have a knack for discovering the perfect pesticide,” says Dr. Pam Marrone, the company’s founder and CEO.
When it comes to bringing natural pesticides and herbcides to market, Marrone is batting a thousand. Her first, Regalia, is a natural fungicide based on an extract of Dot Weed that’s highly effective against a broad range of plant diseases. There’s also Grandevo, a natural pesticide, and Zequanox, which kills the zebra muscles that grow in dams and water systems and cause $1 billion in damage every year.
Each product was conceived by other researchers who lacked the capital and the testing facilities needed to bring them to market. After several rounds of financing, including $25.4 million in Series C funding in June 2011 and a recently-completed deal for $12.5 million in mezzanine debt, Marrone has developed these rough compounds into market-ready products that farmers can use interchangeably with traditional pesticides and herbicides.
Because Marrone’s products are non-toxic and biodegradable, they can be applied to crops right up to the day of harvest. They are also more resistant to genetic mutation by bugs and diseases, which means a longer shelf life and drastically lower development costs.
“It costs $250 million to develop a new chemical, but it costs us $4 to $5 million to discover and commercialize a new product,” Marrone says. “We can do it faster than anybody else, and it’s its pretty capital-light compared to other clean technologies like biofuels.”
With three successful products under its belt, Marrone Bio Innovations has big plans for the near future, including:
– One more round of financing for $10 to $20 million to continue expanding its R&D work, its product pipeline and its sales and marketing force.
– Marketing its first products developed entirely in-house. The first will be Venerate, a potent insecticide awaiting EPA approval, that was discovered in a Buddhist temple garden in Japan.
– Continued trials on about 15 compounds currently fermenting in the company’s tanks to improve their effectiveness against targets while assuring they can be sprayed as easily as traditional products while causing zero harm to humans and non-target organisms.