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Launch HN: Boost Biomes (YC S19) – Microbes for better crop yields, shelf life
75 points by jbacher on Aug 13, 2019 | hide | past | favorite | 31 comments
Hi Hacker News, we're Jamie and Adam, cofounders of Boost Biomes (http://boostbiomes.com/). Boost is developing spray treatments for fruits and crops to prevent mold, mildew and fungi. Packagers can use our products to extend shelf-life for fruits, and farmers can increase yield of crops. The active ingredients are live microbes.

I (Jamie) have been in biotech for over a dozen years. A decade ago, I was at a biofuels company working to grow algae, and fungi ruined our crop. At the time I realized that if we could control the ecosystem, we could prevent these kinds of agricultural disasters. In the meantime, Adam, as a professor at Berkeley National Lab and UC-Berkeley over the last two decades, had been developing a technology platform to understand microbial ecology. When Adam and I met a few years ago, we realized that his technology could address these kinds of challenges. No longer interested in algae as a crop, we saw the opportunity in high-value crops. These include strawberries in the field, apples post-harvest and cannabis as an exploding opportunity.

We're clearly not the first ones to think about microbial products for ag. What sets our approach apart is the technology that Adam developed. Using his approach, we are able to determine what we call an interaction map - the complete set of interactions between microbes from a given environment. The interaction map generates leads for us, including groups of microbes that work together as 'consortia'. Our current lead product candidates are in fact consortia.

Our first product is a soil amendment being sold into the cannabis market. There's a real excitement of the opportunities for the market to expand, and it's an industry full of early-adopters. We're looking longer term, though, as our products will address food production and waste. Fungi destroy enough food to feed 600M people every year—this represents 60% of the people going hungry every year! This is the kind of impact we're after with our tech and with the company.

We look forward to discussing the opportunity and technology!

I was under the impression that the presence of fungi often boosts crop yields, not the other way around. i.e. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/28708056

I'm assuming that when you say microbes, you mean bacteria. What about using engineered fungi, which often already act as pesticides? i.e. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/28905488

From the pub you reference, it looks like some fungi can be beneficial. But many are not - many fungi cause wilts, rots, etc.

We only use naturally-occurring microbes, without genetic engineering. We focus on the unit of the cell, rather than the unit of the gene, to make our products.

Are you able to target detrimental fungi while sparing nitrogen-fixing species, along with those that naturally prey on insects?

Elsewhere in the comments they say that their consortium includes a yeast isolate. Yeast are fungi.

I dig the concept and the name. Have you done any testing? (greenhouse or field)

In regards to the "consortia" products, how many different species/genera/etc. are we talking about here? Is it just bacteria or are fungi part of this? What about e.g. nematodes, etc.

Would love to get some more info, but currently website is a little light on the details. Otherwise, kudos and good work. The more development in this space the better.

We've done over 25 field trials, including post-harvest trials.

The first consortia we've assembled is just two members, one bacteria and one yeast. We envision that it can get pretty complex (but probably won't include multicellular organisms like nematodes).

Interesting that you’re inoculating with yeast. I imagine it’s a very particular strain? Seems like yeast would be everywhere and in the soils already, but I guess maybe not in the required amount?

How are you profiling the microbial ecosystem anyway? E.g. how do you know that 2+ species actually work synergistically with one another? I suspect a lot of trial and error based on what your profiling data suggests?

Sry for the many questions, it’s a fascinating topic.

Yes, it's an uncommon yeast - not Saccharomyces. And, yes, the product is meant to 'bring forward' the effects from these members of the soil microbiome, from minor players to treatments at higher concentration.

The microbial ecology work comes from Adam's lab at LBNL. His tech (that Boost has licensed) experimentally determines interactions (ie, causative relationships, not correlations).

Have you thought about the potential harmful side effects this might cause, and what are your thoughts/strategies on it?

‘Controlling the environment to make things better’ has a spotty history (DDT, Monsanto, etc), and I would evaluate good biotech/agtech by how they are actively thinking about these issues.

The microbes we're using as products come from the soil. The tech to identify them uses understanding the interaction between microbes, so that we can thoughtfully determine which microbes are best suited for a product - we can exclude candidates with any known toxicity issues or negative externalities.

Biological pesticides have a much lower threshold for regulatory approval specifically because they are deemed safer than chemical pesticides.

Customers like replacing their chemical pesticides with our product to lower residual levels of chemicals on their produce. Other countries have more restrictive MRLs (maximum residue levels) permitted on imports than the US does, so products like these are valuable.

To me it sounds like your 'consortia' are much like what Permaculture calls 'guilds': sets of species that work together synergistically.

I'm not familiar with Permaculture, but yes, that sounds right.

Are these synthetic bio constructs of the single bacterium and yeast? Or are these soil isolates?

These are soil isolates - no generic engineering of the strains. One of the lead product active ingredients includes both the bacterium and the yeast.

Love the work that you guys are doing here - coming up with permutations of natural basic organisms that may result in synergistic effects for human consumer benefit!

Have you found any interesting, but not marketable interactions while looking for viable solutions?

Is Boost Biomes planning on granting academic or other licensing to other parties?

Interesting question! We're not currently granting licenses, but may be interested in research collaborations in the future. We did find one very interesting mystery, three morphotypes of a single bacteria (as determined by 16S sequence), that could grow together and influence each others' frequency in the population.

How do you track changes in micro-ecosystems over time?

How aware are you guys of the recent work in mycoremediation?

Congratulations and good luck.

Thanks for the good wishes!

We can track changes in the micro-ecosystems by sequencing the soil or root metagenomes. We aren't doing this yet, but it's on the path forward.

Can you share any data on how the consortia works relative to existing products on the market?

In grapes, our lead consortium prevented botrytis, a key fungal pathogen, to a level statistically indistinguishable from chemical pesticides. Biological don't typically do that well.

We anticipate benefits that we have yet to prove: higher efficacy, lower risk that the target will evolve resistance, and better persistence in the soil.

Best of luck. Something like 25% of food that’s grown won’t be eaten because of, among other things, spoilage. Keeping food fresh for longer would mean not using as much land or as much fertilizer for agriculture.

Isn’t a decent amount of spoilage due to processes internal to the product (e.g. over ripening) versus some external microbe?

Yes. There are other companies that seek to preserve freshness. Our products specifically target fungal infections.

Thanks! In the US, >50% if fruits and vegetables are wasted. (Not all because of fungal rot, of course.)

I am concerned that a one-size-fits-all approach could introduce in invasive species to regions that don't have them.

What steps are you taking to prevent damaging existing ecosystems with your products?

The types of microbes used in our products naturally occur in the soil. Our products pass through the required registration processes to ensure safety.

Yes, but which soil and sourced from where? This is an insufficient answer to the question "will our selection of microbes destroy existing biomes?"

Very nice! How is this different from compost teas & ACT?

Off topic but are there any startups working on GM foods that modify food to increase protein/nutrient content for poor communities with systemic deficiencies?

I'm not aware of these.

There are a number of meat-replacement startup companies, developing replacements for fish, chicken, beef, etc., either by formulating products with protein or animal cells, or with vegetable protein that is formulated to taste and mouthfeel of actual meat.

really impressed by your work! Best wishes for the demo day!

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