German conglomerate Bayer, together with Boston biotech startup Ginkgo Bioworks, announced this morning that they’re creating a new company that could make it possible for crops like corn, wheat and rice to produce nitrogen fertilizer. The yet-to-be-named joint venture between Bayer’s crop science division and Ginkgo, has the backing of $100 million in investment capital from the two companies and New York venture firm Viking Global Investors.
Gingko CEO Jason Kelly, who will serve on the board, says the new company’s 50 employees will work on creating a microorganism called a “plant microbiome” that could upset the $80 billion worldwide market for chemical nitrogen fertilizer, and curb pollution.
Most nitrogen fertilizer is made by big chemical producers. Farmers spray it or inject it into the soil. While it boosts crop yields, it causes environmental damage, says Kelly. Some 3% of the world’s carbon emissions result from nitrogen fertilizer production and toxic nitrogen fertilizer run-off pollutes waterways and kills fish.
The Bayer/Ginkgo team wants to turn crops into their own mini-fertilizer manufacturers. A handful of plants, including peanuts and soybeans, produce nitrogen naturally, and don’t require man-made fertilizer to grow. The plan is to empower other crops to make their own nitrogen by designing a nitrogen-producing microbiome in the lab and coating seeds with the synthetic cells.
A startup founded in 2009 by scientists from MIT, Ginkgo is backed by $154 million in venture funding and will log more than $20 million in revenue this year. Its specialty is making custom-designed cells for companies in the fragrance, food and pharmaceutical industries. It already makes some cells for agricultural clients. Using DNA it designs and manufactures, it programs the cells to produce enzymes and other matter.
The nitrogen fertilizer project poses a serious challenge, says Kelly: “We have to throw the kitchen sink at it.”
The company will have offices at Ginkgo’s headquarters in Boston and in West Sacramento, CA, where Bayer runs R&D in plant biologics.