How a pest-control firm aims to ride the Ag-biotech future

December 23, 2019 14:35
Dr Pedro Coelho, CEO and co-founder of Provivi, an emerging crop protection firm that produces pesticide alternatives for farmers based on insect pheromones to combat pests. Photo: Provivi

Given the growing concern and worries about climate change, investors around the globe are increasingly betting on a sustainable path in agriculture. Agriculture-related biotechnology, such as biofertilizer and microbiome, is seen as the most exciting thing for sustainable agriculture, something that could help solve problems faced in crop production, such as pest management.

Amid this, Provivi, a Santa Monica-based ag-tech company, is developing new solutions for crop protection based on pheromones as a foundation for integrated pest management. Pheromones are natural products used by insects of the same species to facilitate mating.

Founded in 2013 by Dr Pedro Coelho, Dr Peter Meinhold, and 2018 Nobel laureate Dr Frances Arnold, the startup completed a US$85 million series C funding round in October, the largest deal in the space this year, according to PitchBook Data.

The investment was co-led by Pontifax Agtech and Singapore state fund Temasek. 

Chemical pesticides had been the primary tool that farmers have used to thwart infestations, but the wide-scale use of these often harmful products has created serious problems for agriculture’s impact on the environment.

In an exclusive interview, Pedro Coelho, CEO and co-founder of Provivi, shared how the bio-based pest-control developer aims to commercialize a direct-to-farmer product to combat pests around the world, with an aim to a non-toxic pest management system.


EJ Insight: From a chemist to an entrepreneur, what made you leave the chemist life and why this passion on starting your own company?

Coelho: I like to think that chemistry is still very much part of my life given all the R&D that Provivi does on biosynthesis, catalysis and formulation sciences. All of that is chemistry at its best!

I also love how we're using cutting-edge science to mimic solutions that have already been developed by Nature, which is very much the case with pheromones.

My co-founders (Frances Arnold and Peter Meinhold) and I started Provivi out of the desire to change the world in a positive way. Innovation in agriculture is a wonderful way to make a difference in the lives of millions of people and the environment.

Q: What are the major pest species prevalent in Asia causing damage to agriculture in the region? How would Provivi's pesticide alternatives address that?

A: Provivi is focused on developing pheromone-based insect control solutions against the major pests, where our pheromone technology can be applied.

For Asia, there is a large range of pests possible to use this technology, and the most important are Rice Stemborer and Fall Army Worm. Provivi has developed effective products against those pests and is preparing for market entry in several areas around the globe, including Asia.

Q: How do Provivi’s pheromone pest management products work? For now, farmers are usually applying chemical pesticides to thwart pest infestations. How are Provivi’s pesticide alternatives for farmers based on insect pheromones better?

A: After being installed in the field, the Proivivi pheromone dispensers will provide, depending on crop and pest, up and beyond to 90 days control of insect mating. This control of mating will help keep population of damaging insects at a low level.

By preventing insect populations from growing to damaging levels during the control period, the need for insecticide applications will be significantly reduced, thus freeing up labor and equipment, whilst protecting the yield of the crop and the environment.

Pheromones are historically expensive to produce and were until now not profitable to be applied into broad acre crops (such as corn, rice, and soy). Thus, pheromones have primarily been used in higher value crops (like apples and grapes). Provivi's production technology is dramatically changing this, enabling entry onto key broad row crops.

Q: What are the markets that Provivi targets to enter and launch its products to the farmers?

A: Provivi will launch in Mexico and Kenya during 2020, we are conducting product trials in those regions.

Mexico is the world's largest consumer of corn per capita for human consumption. Corn occupies 60 percent of the cultivated area in the country and is a staple crop, inseparable from Mexican culture, as most of the corn grown in Mexico is white corn for human consumption.

Since GMO (genetically modified) corn is not cultivated in the country, chemical insecticides are the predominant form of control. The fall armyworm is the main pest in the country both in terms of dollars of insecticides used to fight it and the losses it causes to agricultural output. Thus there is an urgent need to develop alternative and affordable control measures to the currently available chemical solutions.

Q: How would Provivi commercialize its products and drive the adoption of the product among farmers?

A: Depending on the country, Provivi will adopt various business models to most effectively reach as many farmers as possible. Provivi has a global business team of seasoned experts, all focused on ensuring best entry to each market, helping improve the life of as many farmers as possible.

Our solutions will be affordable and help make a step change in the farm management and the everyday life of the farmers adopting the technology.

Q: From your observation and experience, what are the farmers' major concerns on pest management products, and how would Provivi address that?

A: The fall armyworm is the main pest of corn there and chemical insecticides are used widely, as GMO corn is not cultivated in places like Mexico.

Application of chemical insecticides, when the corn is already tall and dense, tends to be done with backpack spraying, which comes with its obvious downsides of exposure and high labor cost.

Several annual sprays with insecticides are costly and resistance against some of the products is observed, limiting the options for the farmers to effectively control fall armyworm.

Provivi's pheromone products have proven to make a difference. We have reduced on average 35 to 50 percent the use of insecticides while experiencing superior season-long crop protection, thus resulting in substantially higher yields.

There is a trend to see increased demands from foodchain players and the public towards the use of integrated pest management (IPM) technologies and towards reduction or elimination of residues of pesticides in food.

Provivi's pheromone products will provide affordable and efficient control of key insect pests without leaving any residues in the crop and without negative environmental impact.

– Contact us at [email protected]


EJ Insight writer