Irish biotech company MicroGen Biotech is developing products that use microbes—the broad range of single-celled organisms that are found all around us—to increase crop yield, improve food safety, and promote soil health. Using a platform technology called the “Constructed Functional Microbiome,” MicroGen aims to regenerate depleted or polluted agricultural land. This technology identifies a set of microbes that, once introduced into the soil, can reduce pollutants found in crops while improving yields and overall soil quality.
Dr. Xuemei Germaine founded MicroGen Biotech with the support of Enterprise Ireland and the Institute of Technology Carlow. The startup received an initial round of seed funding in 2015 from Irish and Chinese private investors as well as Enterprise Ireland. MicroGen was recently awarded the Thrive Sustainability Award at the 2017 Forbes AgTech Summit.
Food Tank had the opportunity to speak with Dr. Germaine about the need for cleaning up pollutants in agricultural soil, her panel on women in AgTech at the Forbes AgTech Summit, and some of the global issues being tackled in AgTech.
Food Tank (FT): What major challenge in the food system are you addressing at MicroGen Biotech?
Dr. Xuemei Germain (XG): The challenge that we are addressing is that pollutants, which are basically a contamination of toxins in our agricultural soil, could potentially have a health impact on everybody. People normally wouldn’t think that, but basically what we are seeing is that large amounts of pollutants in agricultural soils can pose a threat to our health, safety, and environmental sustainability.
The reason that the pollutant in the soil can impact our health and food safety is that crops like rice, corn, and wheat can accumulate the pollutant from the soil. As an example, I was looking at the data from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, and particularly looking at arsenic, which is a heavy metal that causes cancer, heart disease. And what the data shows is that 53 percent of infant rice samples exceeded the agency’s action level. And that has been all over the American news for the last two years, which raises the concern that you shouldn’t give babies two portion of rice formula per week because it would exceed their safety limit.
Also in Europe, children took 58 percent higher cadmium than is safe to consume, which is another type of heavy metal that can cause cancer. Basically through daily food being taken in they exceeded the European safety level. So the U.S. and Europe all have the problem.
In China, there are 20 million hectares of arable land, which is 20 percent of the Chinese agricultural soil, that are contaminated with pollutants such as heavy metal and other organic compounds. This is resulting in a 10 million ton reduction in crop yield and a further 12 million tons of polluted food per year. We are trying to address feeding 9 or 10 billion people in 2050, and this polluted food and the reduction in crop yield could feed 40 million people.
This is kind of a niche problem. In European markets for example, the government talks less about pollutants in the agricultural soil. The reason for that is there is currently no solution for it. So I moved the planning for MicroGen into AgTech, because our team is passionate about isolating and solving this problem with our biological based products and technology.
At this moment, we think we are the only company developing this biological technology with three functions simultaneously: to increase the crop yield to feed a growing population, to protect our health and food safety, and at the same time improve our soil health to sustain our environment.
FT: What have been some of your biggest successes since founding MicroGen?
XG: The first one is the technology breakthrough. We have been developing this technology for about two years now and we patented it this year. Our patent is a technology called Constructed Functional Microbiome, and this is a platform technology that allows us to identify functional microbial consortia, which can be ten times cheaper and ten times faster than conventional methods. In the future, I can also see our technology disrupting the biological industry in the agricultural and environmental sectors, with this product that we can precisely apply to solve agricultural and environmental problems.
The second greatest milestone for us is our clear path to roll out this product on the market. As I said, the pollution in agricultural soil is a huge problem that needs to be addressed. A couple of years ago, we only talked about feeding 10 billion people in 2050, and now in recent years you can tell that more people care about where the food is from, what is the quality, is it safe to eat?
We identified this problem and then we wanted to look at where the market is. About two years ago I was in the Chinese market, and we know there is a really big need for this technology to address their problems. And at this moment I think we are the only company now to provide this solution in the marketplace. We can help farmers and governments solve pollution in agricultural soil and also to increase crop yield, to increase returns for the growers.
FT: What is bioremediation and how does it impact food production?
XG: Bioremediation means using a biological process to clean up soil. So clean and healthy soil is very crucial for producing safe food sustainably. Our microbe product can stabilize heavy metal, which means we can prevent the heavy metal from being absorbed by crops, and then prevent that impact on our health. It can also degrade toxic organic pollutants, for example it can degrade oil or other kinds of toxic organic pollutants into carbon dioxide and water, which is clean. So then by this process it can prevent the accumulation of these pollutants in our crop.
Our company evolved from bioremediation to AgTech about two years. I think with biotech we are not just focusing on bioremediation, now our product will have three functions: increase the crop yield, and that is through biofertilizers and biostimulants; protect the food safety by cleaning up the soil or preventing the pollutants going into the crop; and add microbes that increase soil and plant health. So that is how we’re trying to get the message out—it’s not only bioremediation in the soil, it’s also those three functions together to give us the best values, including economic, environmental, and social values to our people.
FT: Why do you think it is significant to talk about women in AgTech during your upcoming panel at the Forbes Summit?
XG: I think a lot of people talk about women as a minority, not just in AgTech but in technology in general, and many women talk about how they feel different in that world. To be honest, it may be that I grew up with two brothers and my personality is quite strong in certain areas, but I never felt different as a woman in technology. But I do also talk to a lot of young women and women my age that are working in tech, and they talk about the difference they see, that when talking in front of a group of peers they will have a second thought before they speak.
I think that there are many women leaders in these AgTech areas, and as we are there we expose others to our passion, our commitment, and our patience and determination to achieve success in this area. I think we can be role models for young people and whoever wants to go into the AgTech sector, to give them that confidence. I think that it is important to be a role model for young women who wish to come into AgTech areas.
When people talk about women and also minorities or people from different countries, I actually don’t take that as a disadvantage at all, I think that’s our greatest advantage. I am native Chinese, I have been living in Ireland for about 16 years. And since I started this company I have received huge amounts of support from women entrepreneurs. We are also able to develop our technology from anywhere in the world, and then we can apply it to where we are from, like the Chinese market. So as a woman or as an international, you can actually use those things to your advantage.
FT: What are some of the biggest hurdles that AgTech can help overcome?
XG: I think the biggest challenge is what we talked about, how to feed the world with 10 billion people in 2050. But most importantly, it’s about feeding the world in a sustainable way. We can’t have it as it was before and as it is still happening in developing countries, of just pump too many fertilizers and pesticides and chemicals into agricultural fields. That is the wrong approach. First, just increasing fertilizers doesn’t increase the food yield. And second, the environment can’t handle that, you need to find a sustainable way to do it. So I think the biggest challenge being addressed by AgTech is how to overcome feeding the world in a sustainable way.