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Seed Sensation – Can A UK Startup Revolutionise Agriculture?

Peter Blezard is honing his pitch ahead of a meeting with US investors and with a background in marketing he is clearly not someone who believes in underselling a product. But then again, as founder and chief executive of UK-based biotech company Azotic, Blezard is offering a deceptively simple fix to a major environmental problem.

The problem in question is nitrogen pollution. Nitrogen-based fertilisers are a staple of agricultural production and although essential to maintain crop yields they also cause huge problems, particularly in terms of ‘run off’ into water supplies. Indeed, back in 2011 a report published by the European Union estimated that nitrogen pollution was costing between £50bn and £280bn a year in Europe alone, and in addition to an adverse impact on water supplies it was also contributing to climate change while adversely affecting human health.

There are ways to mitigate the impact of nitrogen pollution, notably a much more selective approach to applying fertilizers. To some extent this can be facilitated through the use of advanced sensors and computer controlled farm vehicles. Deployed on, tractors,  satellites and drones, the sensors map out fields in terms of fertility and requirement for nutrients and this information is used to focus the application of fertilizers to those areas where they are most needed. This approach not only makes the work of applying nutrients more cost-effective, it also reduces pollution. However, it also depends on farmers having access to the necessary high-tech resources.

A Sugar Coating

Blezard’s company has developed what is arguably a more direct approach. Put simply, Azotic has developed a coating for seeds based around a bacteria rejouicing in the name of Gluconacetobacter diazotrophicus. Plants coated with this chemical fix nitrogen from the air – up to  70% of their total requirement, the company says – meaning they require much less from the soil. That in turn means farmers can significantly reduce the amounts of nutrient they apply.

So potentially, Azotic’s coating offers a game-changing and affordable solution to farmers around the world.  But the company’s ability to deliver on that promise probably depends on two factors. Firstly, the science holding up and secondly (as a small company) finding an effective route to market in an industry dominated by big players.

Blezard is confident on the chemistry and biology.  The product has been developed by a team of scientists at BioCity in Nottingham and has been tested in Europe and the US.  “The trials have been conducted by independent research organisations,” says Blezard.  “And they indicate that nitrogen fixing can reduce the amount of nitrogen fertiliser required by 50%.  That’s represents a saving for the grower and it’s good for the environment.”

And as Blezard stresses, the root technology is not new or exotic.  “Rice has been fed for thousands of years with bacteria and the same is true of legumes. But our product can be used with a much wider range of crops, including wheat and oil seed rape.”

The Partner Picture  

According to Blezard, the nitrogen fertilizer market is worth about $110bn per annum and azotic is aiming for a share of 2% or more.  The challenge now is to find an effective way to reach farmers not just in Europe and America but also in South America and Asia.  To date, Blezard has put his own money into the venture and he is reluctant to surrender ownership to VCs and other equity investors.  Instead, he is targeting strategic partners to whom he can licence N-Fix for global distribution.

Ideally he is seeking multiple partners. “No one company is big enough to do this so we will be seeking to licence the product by territory,” he says.  The additional hurdle, of course, is to find partners who will not only get fully behind the technology itself – when they might also be in the fertilizer business – but also accept that Azotic will have a relationship with competitors.

Azotic was one of sixteen UK cleantech companies chosen by UK government innovation agency Innovate UK to take part in a “Cool and Clean”  trade mission to San Francisco to meet prospective investors and partners  and when I spoke to Blezard he had already spoken to potential partners and expressed satisfaction at the progress made to date.

Azotic is offering an ambitious solution to a big problem but it is also selling into a market where names such as BASF, Koch Industries, and Bayer hold mightily strong positions. The company’s ability to deliver will depend on its ability to strike deals with businesses like these.

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