Preview Mode Links will not work in preview mode

Join host Paul Shapiro as he talks with some of the leading start-up entrepreneurs and titans of industry alike using their businesses to help solve the world’s most pressing problems.

Sep 1, 2023

A big part of what keeps you alive—among other things—is nitrogen. The plants you eat need it to grow, so for centuries farmers have been applying it to soil to make their acreage more productive. 

Prior to the 20th century, nitrogen fertilizer used to come from animal feces, blood, and bones—which is still common in organic agriculture today—but most row crops these days are fertilized with human-made nitrogen, produced by a high-energy reaction known as the Haber–Bosch process. (Or if you take Fritz Haber’s view of things rather than Carl Bosch’s, you might just call it the Haber process.)

The creation of synthetic nitrogen is a big reason we can feed eight billion humans today, since it enables us to produce a lot more food from the same acre of land. But, there’s much to be desired about how we fertilize crops today. Not only is it highly energy-intensive to fix nitrogen from the air and turn it into something bioavailable to plants, but the application of all that nitrogen also creates major runoff pollution and air emissions problems from our farms.

But what if, instead of doing the hard work of turning nitrogen into ammonia ourselves, we could simply coax soil microbes to do it for us? That’s what a startup founded in 2011 called Pivot Bio is doing. They’ve gene-edited microbes to restore their natural ability to convert atmospheric nitrogen and deliver it to crops by adhering to the roots of the plants. These nitrogen-fixing microbes are applied either in the furrow at planting or directly on the seed before planting, forging a symbiotic relationship that allows the plant to thrive with less synthetic nitrogen. And we’ve got Pivot Bio’s president and chief operating officer Lisa Nunez Safarian on the show to talk all about it.

Nitrogen, it turns out, is very big business, with the global fertilizer business nearly $200 billion in value. As you’ll hear, Pivot Bio has raised a whopping $600 million-plus from venture investors with a valuation nearing $2 billion—or one percent of the entire global fertilizer industry. Lisa tells us in this conversation that Pivot’s microbes were used on three million cropland acres in 2022, reducing the need for a huge amount of synthetic fertilizer, and generating about $50 million in 2022 revenue for Pivot Bio.

Even if you don’t know much about agriculture, I promise this conversation is a comprehensible and riveting one that showcases the potential for biotechnology to slow climate change, clean up the environment, and produce more food with fewer resources.

Discussed in this episode

More about Lisa Nunez Safarian

Lisa Nunez Safarian leads commercial, manufacturing, and product development at Pivot Bio. Dedicating her career to advancing agriculture and helping farmers achieve better outcomes, Lisa oversees the day-to-day operations to ensure we are meeting the nitrogen needs of our customers. Prior to joining Pivot Bio, Lisa held several leadership positions at Bayer and Monsanto. Most recently, she served as President, Crop Science North America for Bayer where she launched innovative technologies and go-to-market strategies that grew the business. Before this role, Lisa served as Vice President, North America for Monsanto where she was responsible for strategy, execution, and commercial transformation of the $12B U.S., Canada, and Latin America North seeds, traits, licensing and crop protection businesses.