Startup Mantra: A Green Farm Doesn’t Mean A Healthy Crop

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PUNE BioPrime AgriSolutions is an emerging advanced agricultural biotechnology company that develops biological products that enhance crop resilience against climatic conditions and insects/pests, using targeted physiological modulating biomolecules.

This Pune-based agro-biotech startup is redefining farming and transforming lives by “bringing profits back” and a sense of pride to farmers.

The innovative products developed by this startup optimize plant processes to enhance climate resilience by modulating basic plant physiological responses using small “bio” trigger molecules to “prime” responses.

At first…

BioPrime co-founders Renuka Karandikar and Amit Shinde had been friends since their MS and PhD (Plant Science) days at the University of Pune, now SPPU. Shekhar Bhosale, the third co-founder also obtained his PhD in Botany from the University of Pune and specializes in mycology and bioactive compounds that form fungi.

After his doctorate, Karandika did his post-doctorate in genetic engineering in collaboration with the Australian company ‘Cambia’, while Shinde worked with KF Bioplants as a research and development manager and Shekhar worked at the incubation center of the science and technology park of the university of Pune.

Karandika says, “In 2015, I received job offers as a scientist, but I thought I was doing something different and meaningful. Each of us, three co-founders, has published more than 15 articles in peer-reviewed journals. Shekhar and I have a patent, but that’s where our research stops and it was very discouraging. We would have liked there to be a commercial application of our research.

“Our expertise and understanding of plants is much better than just being biomedical and therefore we focused on agriculture. I started BioPrime as an owner company. Shekhar and Amit went on to quit their jobs after a few months.We have interacted with multiple stakeholders from the seed and seedling industry, agriculture, nurseries, farmers, producer organizations.We understood some of their issues and there We worked on a project basis and found solutions. A year later, in 2016, we concluded that we could create formulations based on our biomolecules,” she added.

Resilience to climate change

By interacting with stakeholders, Karandikar and his team realized that climate change is a huge problem, especially for smallholder farmers who make up around 80% of the total, in the country.

“The challenge for them is that even if they cannot adopt modern technologies, the land under cultivation will always be less and therefore the only way to increase income is to increase productivity. Increasing productivity does not necessarily mean increasing production, but managing costs for a good harvest. For smallholder farmers, a single crop is the most important source, contributing nearly 60-80% of their income. If this crop is affected for any reason, be it a heat wave or unseasonal rains, farmers suffer huge losses. We wanted to solve this problem and we focused more on climate change resilience,” said Karandikar.

Government support

Recently, during the initial outbreak of Covid19, the whole country witnessed a disruption in the supply chain and the impact it had on smallholder farmers with regards to the costs of agricultural inputs has been massive. Karandikar and the BioPrime team had realized this in 2016 and started to create new sustainable, ecological and affordable biomolecules, technologies and modes of action for farmers.

According to Karandika, “We would have needed huge capital to set up laboratories equipped with advanced analytical instruments to validate our technology. However, the Biotechnology Industry Research Assistance Council (Birac) provided us with a proof of concept grant from 40 lakh in 2016. Apart from this financing, we have put into our own funds the total 80 lakh as and when required.

“We incubated our startup at the NCL-Venture Center based on this funding. We used the lab facilities on a plug-and-play basis to validate our technology. After this validation, the government again supported us for the pilot-scale validation stage. We received the Sustainable Entrepreneurship and Enterprise Development (Seed) fund from 30 lakh and the Launching Entrepreneurs for Affordable Products (Leap) fund of 1 crore of Birac. We were also helped by NITI Aayog through their “Atal New India Challenge” in which they had eight priority sectors and “climate resilient agriculture” was one of them. We had won this challenge and they supported through a 1 crore grant,” she said.

“Fortunately, those fundings we received when Covid-19 hit, otherwise it would have been very difficult for us to survive those two years,” Karandikar added.

Field experience

Conducting laboratory experiments and field trials are completely opposite experiences. BioPrime has also had its share of such experiences.

“We approached a seedling industry through our elder referrals. They gave us 10,000 plants for our first trial which was successful. Our emergence rate was high and the plants had germinated at a faster rate. We gained confidence that we could build a product based on our experiences and lab tests. It was determined that the seedling industry could benefit from our products. The next step was to conduct trials on farmers’ fields. Although we went to select 10 farmers from Yedgaon in Junnar area of ​​Pune district who received our seedlings, they were skeptical. We had to make eight visits to farmers, just to convince them to allow us to do trials on their fields,” recalls Karandikar.

“We had to assure the farmers that if the crop was damaged, we would pay them the full amount. Even then, we were only allowed to test on a part of their field (rows) which was affected by virus infections. However, as our produce was good, these rows also recovered and we then got half the plot for testing. That year, in 2016, we had five heat waves which were record highs in 50 years and because of which tomato crops were destroyed everywhere. Farmers then protested against some seed companies. On the other hand, the grounds on which we had carried out tests were not affected. It helped us gain acceptance in the farming community,” Karandikar added.

Co-development with farmers

Karandika says that after the field trials, they received a lot of feedback from farmers, which led to the simplification of their product offerings.

“Our products were drip based and could not be used outside of Maharashtra. So we had to make the formulations in granules and we had to spend a year and a half making this product. It was kind of co-development with farmers,” Karandika said.

She also shared another learning experience from Punjab. “During the trials we had been to Punjab where a farmer said he couldn’t ‘see’ the results. When we checked, we couldn’t understand why the farmer wasn’t convinced of our results. We then realized that farmers base their judgment on visual appearances without even going to the field. They were “looking” for something “green” in their fields, but greenness does not contribute to plant stress tolerance. So we launched a counter-campaign saying that a green farm doesn’t necessarily mean a “good” farm.

Product offers

“BioPrime works with small and large plant breeding companies as well as organizations conducting basic research. All products are stage specific and offer climate change mitigation solutions to farmers. Our goal is to achieve success in every harvest, regardless of adverse conditions or the impact of climate change. Farmers can start using our products at any stage of the crop cycle. BioPrime agronomists or the distribution partner team recommend products based on applications and cropping schedules,” says Karandikar.

“We can define batches and compositions with a 100% guarantee. This means that our product will not deviate in future batches. The biomolecules are also stable, allowing good shelf life and storage control. Currently, we have validated a three-year shelf life and are now looking to extend it to five years,” she says. Says Karandikar, “We see ourselves as a research and development partner for the world. We do co-development with multinationals. This will significantly reduce their time to market. With our SNIPR platform, discovery can be achieved at lower cost, risk is reduced and the probability of success increases. Currently, we have two companies with us for multi-product, multi-year development projects, but their names cannot be disclosed.

Venture capital financing

BioPrime closed its first venture capital financing – undisclosed amount of the pre-seed fund – from venture capital firm “Omnivore” in December 2021 as part of its OmniX Bio initiative to support agritech and science startups start-up life.

Karandika said, “We have had revenue positive, cash positive from the start. We have increased funding because we want to multiply by 10. Alongside Omnivore, we also have a large industrialist in the agricultural sector who has invested privately. We are increasing the capacity of our laboratories three times thanks to this funding. »

Future plans

Says Karandika, “Over the next 10 months, we will be looking to make our Series A funding round around $6 million. Our previous investors will also double their investment.

“In addition, we are working on very specific microbes that associate with plants. Within a year, we will build India’s largest library of 10,000 plant-associated microbes. Currently, our scientists have gathered agroclimatic data for the past 30-40 years and data on crop success and failure. We integrated this data and 80 sites were identified across India,” she said.

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