May 1, 2023

Three Keys to Success in the Biologicals Space

There is a lot of discussion about biological solutions in agtech these days at trade shows and in ag media, and with good reason. The use of chemical inputs to help manage pests and disease is under massive regulatory pressure from both Sacramento and D.C.—in many cases following the playbook western Europe is already using. Restrictions that could result in reduced use or outright bans are currently being considered in many places. Investors see the pressure and are looking for innovations that can help produce new solutions that can help to reduce the usage of chemicals, increase the efficiency of the chemicals that are used, and adjust the portfolio mix toward biological solutions. Startup founders can see the tailwinds being created and are starting to innovate new solutions in labs and universities to help speed things up.

When there are this many tailwinds working in favor of a single agtech segment, it is always good to start making sure we define the segment with some specificity for two reasons. First, it helps legitimate players innovating in the space define it narrowly to keep faux players in the space out. Second—and this is equally important—it helps investors know that the legitimate innovators are going to pitch for funds with a clarity about what the space is and what it is not.

Both groups benefit from a very clear definition. This is why biologicals, having achieved the first target of being a hot segment with tailwinds, now must be clearly defined to help startups and investors who are trying to innovate and invest in the segment identify each other. If we get this right, we can help support the momentum of a hot space. If we get it wrong, we run the risk of creating the next CEA (see the carnage and fire sales in that space recently?) or alt-protein (anybody heard anything good about Beyond or Impossible burgers lately? As I’ve said before, with enough cheese and bacon I can choke one down but they still lose on taste and price for me so I’m just not that into them) and blowing through an awful lot of venture capital money with not a lot to show for the effort.

Here’s the key to defining the space: we can’t let startups and investors use “biological” as a descriptor for an agtech segment. It’s actually a descriptor for multiple spaces. Think about the problem we are trying to solve with biologicals—it includes everything from genetic innovations that help plants resist drought and disease to soil health solutions that measure and improve any number of metrics that can improve soil health to biofertilizers and biostimulants that encourage more growth and yield. That’s at least three different segments: genetics, soil health and inputs (each of which naturally breaks down into its own set of segments.) It’s understandable why startups from any of the segments would want to label themselves as biological solutions when the tailwinds above are getting more obvious daily to investors, and even potential customers, as regulatory pressures mount to start replacing chemicals with…biologicals (loose definition.)

Two things can be true at the same time. Western Growers and our membership will continue to advocate for science-based usage of chemical inputs while working hard to help support and scale innovators as the new solutions iterate and improve enough to continue successfully fundraising and getting products in a ready position for scale and international market entry. Attempts to go entirely without chemicals would likely lead to results like Sri Lanka (organic mandate results in lower yields, mass starvation due to lack of import capability, and becomes a significant factor in a government overthrow less than 18 months after the executive order was signed) or the Netherlands (government decision to use tax dollars to shut down 3,000 livestock operators under the guise of EU greenhouse gas emissions reductions resulted in a just-formed political party taking the most seats in the recently contested election, sending a clear signal that it wasn’t just farmers that were unhappy with the strong-armed approach that could and should have been driven by innovation instead of regulation).

So with all the tailwinds, everyone in the agtech ecosystem (that includes growers, investors and industry groups like Western Growers) has three jobs for biologicals.

First, if a startup says they are in biologicals, ask which part of biological solutions—genetics, soil health or inputs? Second, once the sub-segment is identified, ask what specific problem, or budget line item, the startup’s solution helps improve from a grower economics perspective (always helps when they can tie it to a specific line item on the financial statements). If these sound a lot like two of the first steps used in Lean Startup analysis, they should, and that’s the third job. Make sure that all biologicals startups are pushing their thinking through Lean Startup (aka Lean Canvas if doing Google search to identify the easy-to-use tool implementation of Lean Startup methodology) which will force them to think hard about the use case, problem statement and economic model they should pursue.

If we can do that for all biological startups, we will help them avoid bad R&D paths and ideally improve their chances of fundraising and/or successful fundraising depending on where in their life cycle the startup is at when you meet them. Pay it forward, folks. Startups are hard, we can help avoid some unforced R&D errors and wasted capital with these three simple steps. Helping everyone understand which biological solutions are dessert toppings and which are floor waxes is good for everyone in the long-term.