Joyan Bio’s goal is to solve the world’s fertilizer problem with germs

Plants at Joyan Bio Greenhouse in Woodland, Calif.

Photo courtesy Joyan Bio

Nitrogen fertilizers are crucial for crop growth and feeding the world population. However, it is expensive, critically in short supply, and it is a contributor to climate change because the manufacturing process emits greenhouse gases.

This is a thorny issue, but germs can help solve it.

This is the thesis of Mike Millie and Joyn Bio’s team, a start-up launched in October 2017 as a joint venture between synthetic biology company Ginkgo Bioworks and Life Science Group Bear’s investment arm, Lips by Bear.

Joyan Bio, headquartered in Boston, is working on a bacteriological engineer that will halve the use of nitrogen fertilizers by maize, wheat and rice farmers while maintaining the yield of the same crop.

From the jump, Mill knew it was a “munshot,” he told CNBC in a phone call in April. After three-and-a-half years of operation, Joyn is testing bio-prototypes, but is still three to four years away from selling in the market. Since the launch, Joyan has raised $ 100 million from Bayer, Ginkgo and investment house Viking Global to fund Bio’s activities.

If they can provide, the potential impact is significant.

“It’s great if it works. It’s a big ‘if’, but it’s great if it works,” said Joseph Smeduber, an economist at the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. Schmidhuber admitted that he knew nothing about Joyn Bio, so he could not prove it on behalf of the company, but acknowledged the potential of the idea as a gamechanger. “The idea is good. Bright. Absolutely. No doubt about it,” he told CNBC.

Stanford professor Anna M. Mitchalak, director of the Department of Global Ecology at the Carnegie Institution for Science, agreed.

“Developing approaches to reducing fertilizer use would be a win-win for farmers, low-income environments and climates,” Michalak told CNBC. “Now, I don’t know if the special technology proposed by this start-up actually does that.”

Big problem with nitrogen fertilizer

Plants at Joyan Bio Greenhouse in Woodland, Calif.

Photo courtesy Joyan Bio

According to a report released Monday by the Department of Agricultural Economics at Texas A&M University, it has also become more expensive, with prices up 133% from last year. Another primary fertilizer made with phosphorus and potassium increased by about 93% over the same period.

Nitrogen fertilizers require ammonia, which is made from hydrogen and nitrogen using an industrial process called Haber-Bosh. The process relies on natural gas, and gas prices have skyrocketed this year as part of the Russian war in Ukraine, which has driven fertilizer prices, Schmidhuber told CNBC.

The alternative is often worse: “In China, there are still coal-fired plants” being used to make synthetic fertilizers, Schmidtuber said. “It’s definitely a very dirty business, and the Chinese themselves are very unhappy with it.”

A microbial transplant

Soybeans and other biologically similar lemons are able to fix nitrogen from the air without fertilizer. But cereal products like wheat, rice and corn can’t do that and so the goal is to create a germ that can do it for them.

Joyan Bio’s goal is to license the technology it is developing to a large seed company, such as Bayer or Corteva. The germ has to go on a seed and then the germ will grow with the corn plant, Millie said.

The techniques and tools that Join Bio has been using have only become available in the last five to ten years, Miles told CNBC. So far, they have only been used to make a specific e-engineer. E. coli or yeast products. In this case, the germ must actually work with a corn plant in the field, which is a big jump.

Miille has been working in the microbial farm space for some time now. He studied marine biology at Stanford and earned a PhD in agricultural and environmental chemistry from the University of California, Davis. Prior to launching Zion Bio, Mill launched another microbial agriculture company, AgraQuest, which manufactures bio-pesticide biological pest management products and which Bayer bought for $ 425 million. Mill worked at Bear for five years after his first start-up acquisition and before creating Joyan Bio.

The potential of Joyan Bio can be helped by the sudden price increase for traditional nitrogen fertilizers.

Plants at Joyan Bio Greenhouse in Woodland, Calif.

Photo courtesy Joyan Bio

“Haber-Bosh is actually rather competitive, and cheap and well-established,” Schmidhuber told CNBC. Before Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, as long as there was excess shale gas in the United States and “cheap gas from Russia” in Europe, “there was little incentive to look beyond Haber-Bush.”

Joyn Bio will take some time to come to market, as it will have to meet the company’s extensive regulatory requirements.

“You have to do field trials there for at least a few years,” Mill said. And before that, Ginkgo wants to acquire Joyan Bio in a deal that is expected to close before the end of 2022. The financial details of the contract are not being disclosed.

But Mill is confident that if they can go to market, the demand for farmers will be understood from an economic point of view.

“While we modeled it in terms of profitability for farmers, we did it at a time when fertilizer was relatively inexpensive,” Mill said. “So even in the general cost situation for fertilizer, it is a financial benefit for the farmer – there is a big financial incentive for farmers to take it.”

“I’m worried about the industry’s ability to make fertilizer full stops – and forget about the rest,” Schmidhuber told CNBC. “The problem we are seeing at the moment is that there is not enough food to get around. It could actually get worse, because Europe, trying to free itself from Russian gas, actually wants to use the gas for other purposes. Not heat and fertilizer production.”

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