'We need to invite capitalism to the table': How agtech can take on climate change

Lucent Biosciences tackles the triple bottom line in an effort to innovate for farmers, transition towards sustainability, and bring value to investors.

A soy field trial conducted by Lucent Biosciences. Photo: Lucent Biosciences

Modern day agriculture is the product of a 110-year-old World War I technology. The Haber-Bosch process of making ammonia for fertilizer is estimated to have enabled the lives of billions of people, growing our population from 1.6 billion in 1910 to nearly eight billion today. Unfortunately, fertilizer is often overused, contributing to events such as aquatic ecosystem damage and climate change. The food system needs modern solutions — and just as our pockets today are no longer holding the electronic brick of a 1970s cellphone, farmers need to move on from 20th century tech.

Impacts on planet, impacts on livelihoods

The answer could be found in the changing foundation of farmers’ work — soil. It’s an ecosystem home to organic matter (carbon), inorganic minerals such as nitrogen and phosphorus, as well as a microbiome of bacteria and fungi, all of which provide the optimal conditions for crops to grow. While soil of the 19th century was rich in these minerals and nutrients, the impacts of excess fertilizer use and other industrial practices have come to light. Soil of farming communities around the world has severely degraded in the past century, threatening livelihoods because of the ensuing reduction in crop yield.

That pain point is where the co-founding team at Lucent Biosciences saw an opportunity to innovate, said Jason McNamee, co-founder and COO. The company’s first product, Soileos, specializes in a micronutrient fertilizer — not necessarily optimizing for the primary macronutrients of nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium for yield, but that of micronutrients such as iron and zinc, which are also in decline in degraded soils.

“We found a way to attach the nutrients to natural polymers like cellulose and starch, in such a way that those nutrients are bound tightly enough that the nutrients wouldn't run off,” said McNamee. “They wouldn't leach,” he added, addressing the environmental concerns associated with fertilizer products.

Lucent Biosciences’ micronutrient fertilizer, Soileos. Photo: Lucent Biosciences

While this technology developed by co-founder and chief science officer Farah Nour was impressive, it was a whole other affair to demonstrate its efficacy in the field. The company was founded in 2014, but spent 2020 to 2022 expanding its field-trial program to establish a scientific basis for the product’s benefits.

“As of today, we have done close to 200 trials, of which more than half of those are large-scale trials with farmers,“ said Michael Riedijk, co-founder and CEO of Lucent Biosciences.

Machinery working on a Soileos field trial application. Photo: Lucent Biosciences

Part of the value of field trials was being able to work on the user experience with farmers, who Riedijk was surprised to hear weren’t always concerned about yield. Nonetheless, these were important for product adoption.

“There were a lot of comments about user-friendliness,” said Riedijk. “Does the product smell? Does it dust? Is it easy to handle — does it flow out? Those are all product parameters that you will probably never think about in the beginning, but they make a huge difference for the farmer as well.”

The difficult science of carbon sequestration

While an effective product for farmers is meaningful, agriculture faces the pressure to decarbonize, and Lucent Biosciences is no exception. The startup hired another company to complete a full carbon lifecycle analysis of its Soileos product, eventually determining that it could be climate-positive.

“They concluded that the product has the potential to sequester up to six-to-eight tonnes of CO2 per one tonne of product applied,” said Riedijk. “So you have a six-to-eight-times multiplier in terms of carbon sequestration.”

Lucent Biosciences plans to conduct further studies around its product’s carbon sequestration potential, particularly because certainty in the science is hard for a number of reasons: it’s difficult to calculate, difficult to verify, and difficult to keep in the ground. Soil is a dynamic and living ecosystem, meaning that the carbon is in flux — the microbiome constantly expels and takes in the element. In addition, there’s a limit to the amount of carbon that soil can keep in the ground, causing scientists to caution against looking to soil as a place to lock up emissions.

Nonetheless, the global pressure to reach net zero is coercing large players to invest in the ability of soil to lock up carbon dioxide, largely through the carbon markets.

“Two months ago, we won a big award from Thrive — the Shell Smart Agriculture Award — which is a climate adaptation-focused award,” said Riedijk. “The prize that we won, basically, is that Shell is looking to conduct a pilot project with us to go through a complete monitoring, reporting, and verification process to get to sellable carbon credits eventually.”

A potential end vision is likely that a farmer who applies Soileos will be able to generate carbon credits to sell in the carbon market to a buyer such as Shell, a fossil fuel company that has made commitments to reach net zero by 2050 and needs to purchase the credits to meet these goals. It’s an envisioned payment-for-ecosystem service, wherein a farmer is compensated for better agricultural practices which claim to remove CO2 from the atmosphere.

Lucent Biosciences staff in the lab, working on product development. Photo: Lucent Biosciences

“Along the way, we're going to learn all about how this product works — what is the actual carbon sequestration that's happening?” said Riedijk. “We just started the trial this year, [and] we're going to do CO2 and all measurements in the fields and in the greenhouse to get accurate numbers.”

Riedijk affirms that the product is climate-positive, largely compared to others in the market — it’s a non-pollutive addition that improves soil health. It’s this combined value proposition — one that benefits both the environment and yield — — that makes for a compelling product for sale, he adds.

“I think what we're going to show here — over the next two to five years, depends on how long it takes us to scale — we're going to show that having this product with those other benefits is going to have a significant entrepreneurial advantage,” said Riedijk.

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Scaling up

If you can invite capitalism to the climate change table — if you could say to capitalists, ‘Yeah, well, if you can solve climate change, you can make billions and trillions of dollars,’ I think it would get solved quickly,” said McNamee.

Lucent Biosciences’ co-founding team. Photo: Lucent Biosciences

Inviting capitalism to the table was a driving force behind Lucent Biosciences’ strategic partnerships. The startup teamed up with AGT Foods, the largest pulse processor in Canada, and won a $3 million project award from Protein Industries Canada to build a large-scale manufacturing facility. It’s expected to go live in July, where it will create 25 tonnes of Soileos product per day. A key part of the production is cellulose byproducts from AGT: husks and hulls, which are otherwise regarded as low value.

“We're looking to work with AGT to bring the technology to other countries where they operate,” said Riedijk. “They operate in the U.S., South Africa, Australia, Turkey, and India. So that's where we're looking to expand.”

But Riedijik emphasizes that fertilizer isn’t its only product, and if Lucent Biosciences is to achieve its mission of decarbonizing agriculture and supporting the industry’s transition to sustainability, it’ll need multiple products to do so. Part of the suite under development are other additives which support seed growth and fertilizer use.

“[Agriculture is] using this old, toxic chemistry,” said Riedijk. “The problem is that these products were never designed with sustainability in mind. So if we want to make an impact in the world, it's going to come from material sciences and new types of approaches to fertilizer that are very specifically designed with sustainability in mind.”

Lucent Biosciences has lofty goals, including an aim to eventually get its products on 50 million acres, after first reaching one million acres next year across the Canadian Prairies and the U.S. Midwest. The company is currently raising a series A following a $4.2 million investment from a number of funds and Vancouver angel investors in 2021, in addition to existing grants and other awards of non-dilutive capital.

“If we're really going to address climate change and food security, we need to invite capitalism to the table,” said McNamee. “And the way that we do so is by making products like this, that work better, cost less, improve soil health, [and] sequester carbon. If we make those the de-facto suite of products, that's how we start to really actively address climate change.”

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