Editor’s Note: This week, AgriBusiness Global had the chance to sit down with Dr. Russell Sharp, Technical Director and Founder of Plater Bio, which he founded in 2016 to commercialize novel agrichemical solutions to the major challenges facing agriculture. Sharp will speak about best practices for marketing biostimulants at the Biostimulant CommerceCon, co-located with the AgriBusiness Global Trade Summit, 30 July – Aug. 2, 2018 in Phoenix, Arizona. Here he discusses his career and topics including what he believes triggered the current boom in the biostimulant market.
Can you share some details about your background and how you have seen the biostimulant market evolve?
Russell Sharp: I have always been obsessed with plants. I was a member of the Liverpool Botanical Society as a teenager and then went on to be a student, doctoral student, post doc, and lecturer in Plant Science. Then if that wasn’t enough, I have spent many a vacation hunting weird and wacky plants and studying their biology in far-flung places.
My academic research career focused on translating pure plant science into solutions for challenges in the commercial horticulture and agriculture industry in the UK. This included studying the mode of action of microbial biostimulant products that modulate plant growth and health.
In 2014 I left academia to enter the biostimulants sector as I could see that this was an area of rapid expansion and a sector where plant physiologists could use their skills to make a real difference to improve crop yields.
While biostimulants have been used for many decades, it was from 2010 that the industry began to snowball due to a combination of: 1) new technologies being developed, 2) investors increasingly seeing it as a good area to invest, and 3) traditional agchem (pesticides and fertilizers) showing lower growth rates due to falling commodity prices.
The biostimulants market has grown rapidly, with many companies being formed in the last 10 years. However, many of the products are very similar, and so differentiation is currently the major challenge in this sector. Another major challenge is regulation, with many new regulations appearing, or set to be implemented in most major regions to cover products that previously were outside the scope of traditional agchem registration schemes.
What brought you to founding Plater Bio?
RS: I have previously worked for two biostimulant companies and very rapidly learnt what was required to succeed or fail in the industry. In these companies I found myself being drawn away from developing new products (my passion) towards ensuring sales targets were met. As such, I decided to back myself and create a company to commercialize my ideas for products which I knew were innovative, novel and needed in the industry.
I talked to the team at Plater Group, who are an independent UK chemical company. While Plater had no real background in agchem, they had all the raw materials required and facilities to create the products I had in mind, so it was a great match to partner with them. While we had an idea for the types of products we would develop, we have now pivoted completely to concentrate on products developed since we set up Plater Bio.
We are now focusing on two major products. The first, Gold Leaf, is the world’s first liquid fertilizer to contain every essential nutrient. This has massive potential globally in all sectors of agriculture and horticulture, so I spend most of my days finding distributors to trial this product in different countries. The second product we focus on is a vegan alternative to isinglass based on chitosan. This product can also be used as a biofungicide in the EU.
Is there one particular event or product that you think really led to the boom that we are seeing today?
RS: That is an interesting question. The dominant product in the biostimulant market is seaweed extract. However, seaweed extracts have been around for decades and seaweed fertilizer for millennia, so it cannot be the cause of the current boom. The same is true of microbial products, with many of the products on sale today being the same species as available in the 1980-’90s.
So I would say the current boom is a result of a boom in scientific understanding in how microbials and extract-based products work, and how they can be refined and modified to produce effective products. This often led to patents, and in turn investors feeling more comfortable in investing in companies with patents than they do in those where their market share is protected by know-how.
The rise of the BRIC nations in the last two decades has also helped the biostimulant industry. China is a major producer of seaweed extract and chitin, and India is a hot-bed for the commercialization of microbial products. This is has led to a host of new biostimulants, a massive uplift in production capacity, and a major market on farms in these countries where biostimulants are able to assist farmers growing crops in stressful conditions (e.g., saline soils).
Is there anything in your research you’ve found that is especially promising as a biostimulant and isn’t yet on the market?
RS: There are a number of areas we are looking at in the Plater Bio pipeline that are very exciting and involve natural chelation of micronutrients. However, I cannot talk about these just yet!
Once a company has a working technology, it is then normally in the hands of a distributor to take it to the market. That is unless the company is prepared to market and sell the product directly. As such, there is currently a major bottleneck to commercialization relating to the ability of distributors to assess the merits of new technology.
Distributors need able to differentiate between “me too” companies, see past the hyperbole of claims, and uncover the truly innovative technology that will be profitable to them and their customers. A great example of this is the literally hundreds of companies selling seaweed extract at trade shows such as CAC in Shanghai. I would not want to be a buyer in that scenario trying to differentiate between them all! As a result, the main challenge for a company like Plater Bio is finding and convincing the right distributor that our technology is very different to that on offer from the crowd.
Can you describe the relationship between micronutrients and biostimulants and the use of the two product types together?
RS: There is often a strong link between micronutrients and biostimulants. Firstly, the markets and distributors for these products are often the same. Secondly, micronutrients are often chelated with known biostimulants (e.g. amino acids and mannitol). Thirdly, the mode of action of some biostimulants can result in improved nutrient use efficiency of micronutrients, such as solubilizing bound nutrients from soils. The reverse is also true, with some microbial biostimulants not able to function without the correct micronutrients (e.g., the requirement for adequate molybdenum nutrition in the soil for the growth of Rhizobium).
Plater Bio’s new Gold Leaf fertilizer is another great example of this. Gold Leaf is unique because it contains every essential plant nutrient, but we literally could not deliver the biostimulant component without the micronutrients being present, and vice versa!
Which markets are growing for these?
RS: Major areas of growth for biostimulants and micronutrients are organic production, hydroponics, and high-value horticulture. Field-based crops are a major target, but getting a product to market where it makes sense from an ROI perspective for the farmer is more challenging — but not impossible.
It is not always the fastest growing markets that should be targets. At Plater Bio, we are seeing great success in the sports/amenity sector in the UK. This is actually a shrinking market, but the premium products we offer are being extremely well received in this market.
What is the most important thing/s to remember when trying to sell your science-backed product?
RS: Definitely, the most important thing is having the ability to back up the claims for the product and discuss the product in detail, while at the same time ensuring you do not divulge IP that could allow somebody to reverse engineer it. This is often a thin line that is misjudged by many biostimulant producers. More often than not, companies will be over-cautious and not divulge any information about what is in their product and refer only to the product name. Phrases such as, “Phyccotronics will lead to a 10% increase in yield by stimulating plant metabolic processes” are often the only “science” on a technical data sheet, and are of little to no help in convincing somebody to use your product. Convincing distributors of the merits of your product is difficult enough. Not telling them what is in the product makes it near on impossible!
Farmers might also be put off due to them having to submit to supermarket or organic certification audits on all their crop inputs, and so will be reticent to apply unknown compounds to their crops.