How a Berkeley startup is changing farming with a new kind of fertilizer

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Pivot Bio’s microbial nitrogen offers a host of environmental benefits. And we can taste the results already.

The microbial nitrogen developed by Pivot Bio is already used in more than a million acres of farmland in the U.S. Credit: Pivot Bio

September 12, 2022

BERKELEYSIDE – When it’s popcorn time in Alvin Tamsir’s household, he wants one brand and one brand only: yellow butterfly kernels from Connect

Granted, he is biased. After all, it is one of the showcase products of his West Berkeley startup, Pivot Bio. Plus, Connect popcorn checks all the right health and eco boxes that Berkeleyans hold dear. Whole grain. Non-GMO. Grown in the U.S. of A., on a Nebraska family farm. Nothing synthetic. 

CSO Alvin Tamsir. Credit: Pivot Bio

This last attribute  — nothing synthetic — is by far the biggest differentiator. Because unlike commercially synthesized, petroleum-based fertilizers, Pivot Bio’s product is a sustainable, microbial-based nitrogen-fixing solution that works, in Tamsir’s words, “as nature intended.” 

CEO Karsten Temme. Credit: Pivot Bio

Tamsir’s obsession with plants goes back to his days as a UC Berkeley undergrad working in plant biology in the Fischer Lab. He went on to earn a doctorate in biological sciences from UCSF before founding Pivot Bio in 2011 with his UC Berkeley classmate Karsten Temme, now the CEO. Tamsir serves as chief scientific officer. The two located their company in the Wareham Development Aquatic Park Center campus in the Berkeley-Emeryville Bio corridor, a burgeoning epicenter for R&D companies specializing in agtech, foodtech and other life sciences. 

“There are other tech hubs we could have chosen but the No. 1 reason to locate here is talent,” Tamsir said. “The tie-ins to the university, to research and to other like-minded companies make it really attractive to people who want to apply their talents to solving real-world problems.” 

A Pivot Bio scientist tests the company’s microbes’ efficacy on plant activity using a spectrometer. Credit: Nancy Rothstein Photography

And there is no question that the world’s nearly century-long use of petroleum-based synthetic fertilizers is a real-world problem. In fairness, synthetic fertilizers have been credited with allowing the robust yields that have enabled farmers to feed the planet’s 7.75 billion — and still multiplying — human population. 

But those productivity gains come with a tremendous ecological cost, including waterways polluted by runoff; algae blooms and suffocated fish populations; soils turned toxic by leached chemicals; and disruption of beneficial organisms. 

The main reason farmers use synthetic fertilizer is that plants need nitrogen. “Nitrogen is a key resource for the whole world,” Tamsir said. And although nitrogen is abundant in the atmosphere, it exists only in small amounts in the form plants need in the soil. But as the human population has swelled, slow and ancient practices to keep nitrogen in the soil became too limited and time-consuming to keep pace. 

Enter commercially made synthetic fertilizers — and their attendant problems. 

But synthetic fertilizers pose another, more existential problem. “While synthetic nitrogen has fueled crop production, it has had an unintended impact on the soil. Sensing extra nitrogen from the fertilizer, naturally occurring microbes in the soil ‘turned off’ their capabilities to produce nitrogen,” Tamsir said. 

It’s the Catch-22, damned-if-you-do, more-damned-if-you-don’t ecological conundrum of the 21st century.

That’s what makes Pivot Bio’s solution so timely — and consequential. Its microbes adhere to the root of the crops, convert atmospheric nitrogen from the air into a form plants can use, and provide the right amount of nutrients — and have none of the drawbacks of synthetic fertilizer. Indeed, it’s hard to overstate how transformative the product could be if adopted globally. “Our product is a win-win solution for everyone,” Tamsir said. “It’s good for farmers; it’s good for the environment; it’s good for the climate; it’s good for the world. It eliminates problems of runoff into rivers, greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, and disruption of soil.”

A Pivot Bio scientist prepares samples of treated corn seed in the company’s West Berkeley lab. Credit: Nancy Rothstein Photography

Scientist that he is, Tamsir has, of course, run the numbers. “If widely adopted, Pivot Bio’s revolutionary approach to climate change mitigation has the potential to avoid more than 1 gigaton of CO2-equivalent emissions over the next 10 years, and over 500 million tons of greenhouse gases annually by 2050,” Tamsir said. “Likewise, Pivot Bio’s solutions have the potential to prevent $200 billion of environmental damage while ensuring the continuation of the world’s food supply.”

“It’s also easier to use and economically more beneficial for our world’s farmers,” he added.

To date, Pivot Bio’s nitrogen was used on more than 3 million acres across the U.S. in 2022. So far it has been used for growing corn, wheat and sorghum, primarily in the Midwest. As Tamsir observes, this is just a starter list, both in terms of geography and crop type. “One thing to note is that our product should be able to do its job in both modern, large-scale agricultural settings as well as on more marginal lands where people rely on a small number of indigenous or subsistence crops.” 

Connect popcorn. Credit: Pivot Bio

It’s hard for Tamsir to not slip into a kind of utopian rapture when envisioning widespread adoption of Pivot Bio’s microbes. “Our long term goal is that our product has fully replaced synthetic fertilizer and is fully integrated into farming practices everywhere food is grown,” he said. 

But amid all these grand visionary ideas are some humble ones as well. And the first one up is microwavable Connect popcorn. “We’re expecting that to launch later this year,” he said. In the meantime, there’s still the good old-fashioned stovetop method for Connect kernels. 

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