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What We’ve Learned: SymbioMatch on what’s behind the biofertiliser boom and how to avoid its bubble bursting

By Oliver Morrison

- Last updated on GMT

Marcela Suárez (left) with co-founders Marcin Nadzieja (right) and Stig Andersen (centre)
Marcela Suárez (left) with co-founders Marcin Nadzieja (right) and Stig Andersen (centre)

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Biologicals are demonstrating a trend of growth amid rising demand for more sustainable and natural farming practices. SymbioMatch, an early research-based start-up based in Denmark, hopes to fulfil the need for biofertilisers that work consistently across different environments, says its co-founder and CEO Marcela Suárez. Yet success and the wider adoption of biologicals in the agricultural sector hinges on cutting the costs associated with small-scale fermentation, she tells AgTechNavigator.

Plant biotechnology is one of just three sectors defying the trend of falling global venture capital investment and deal counts​ across agtech.

Biologicals, encompassing biofertilisers, biostimulants and biocontrols, are a key component of this space, which is increasingly seen as a powerful tool for addressing global challenges in food security, climate change, and sustainable agriculture.

A good illustration of this trend is biotechnology company SymbioMatch, a spin-out of Aarhus University in Denmark, which is making customised biofertilisers to boost legume crop yields.

The idea of customised biofertilisers seemed impossible a decade ago when SymbioMatch co-founder and CEO Marcela Suárez first began her research, she tells AgTechNavigator​.

She has since witnessed a growing interest in research and support for more sustainable farming practices, which has fuelled SymbioMatch’s ambition to transform agriculture with customised biofertilisers designed to boost yields of high-protein crops.

The journey began in Mexico, she explains, where she worked with farmers to reduce water and chemical fertiliser usage. “We tried using biofertilisers, which contain soil bacteria that provide nitrogen to legumes like peas, faba beans, and soybeans. However, we found that these generic biofertilisers were inconsistent, sometimes increasing plant yield and sometimes having no effect.

“This inconsistency is due to the generic bacteria having to compete with local bacteria in new soils. Unfortunately, this meant that farmers had to take on the risk if they wanted to use biofertilisers instead of chemical ones. At that time, customised products were impossible due to the high cost of research and development.”

Motivated to find a solution, she went on to pursue a PhD at Oxford University, where she developed a method to identify the best soil bacteria quickly and affordably for each crop. After this she joined Aarhus University in Denmark as a postdoc to validate this method in greenhouse conditions using different soil samples from around the EU.

Together with SymbioMatch co-founders Marcin Nadzieja and Stig Andersen the team has used the latest advances in sequencing and plant assays to adapt this method and train a machine learning platform to find the best plant-soil-bacteria match. Now its technology identifies the most effective nitrogen-fixing bacteria for unique combinations of legume crop and soil and the start-up uses these bacteria to create customised biofertilisers.

“Our work at SymbioMatch is more than just a business. It’s a commitment to helping farmers, reducing environmental impact, and revolutionising agriculture with science,” said Suárez. “We believe that our customised biofertilisers will change farming for the better, benefiting farmers, consumers, and the environment.”

SymbioMatch is using a combination of advanced technologies and innovative methods to create customised biofertilisers, she explained.

“Our research has shown us that the effectiveness of biofertilisers depends on the intricate interactions between bacteria, plants, and soil. To create our biofertilisers, we first identify beneficial soil bacteria using a specialised method. We then assess plant growth to determine the effectiveness of these bacteria. We collect this complex data in a standardised way and use deep learning to interpret it. To speed up our results, we also use accelerated plant growth techniques.

“When a farmer needs a new biofertiliser, we take the information about their soil and the specific crop they want to grow and use our platform to find the best match. If a good match is found, this becomes the formulation of our customised biofertiliser. If a good match isn’t found, we start our process again from the beginning. This new data not only helps us create the correct biofertiliser formulation but also feeds our algorithm, making our matches more accurate over time.

“As a result, we can develop customised biofertilisers that consist of natural, non-GMO bacteria, tailored to each farmer’s unique circumstances.”

Positive results from field trials

Last year, SymbioMatch conducted its first field trial in collaboration with a seed company in Germany, a potential client. It observed a significant 7.2% yield increase compared to the standard practice for faba beans. This was particularly encouraging since it ran the trials in a healthy organic field rich in natural rhizobia and nutrients.

Encouraged by these positive results, its collaborator has agreed to run field trials for the next three years on faba beans. Additionally, starting next year, it will also begin field trials for its biofertiliser products for pea crops.

“We’re currently conducting a field trial in southern Spain,” said Suárez. “Our plan is to run field trials in several geographical regions to ensure that our products work effectively across different conditions and legume crops. This approach allows us to continually refine and improve our customised biofertilisers, ensuring they accommodate each farmer’s unique circumstances.”

How did SymbioMatch secure funding and build its team?

“Our team was formed four years ago when Stig hired me as a postdoc for an EU project aimed at developing better breeding practices for faba beans,” Suárez told us. “This project provided me with soil samples and hundreds of faba bean cultivars, which were instrumental in validating the idea of creating customised biofertilisers.

“Marcin, who was also part of this project, brought expertise in plant science, while I contributed my knowledge of bacteria. Stig, with his strong bioinformatics skills and extensive network with seed and breeding companies. This combination of skills allowed us to dramatically improve the isolation and identification of effective bacteria for our customised biofertilisers.

As the start-up began to gather data from its greenhouse validations, Suárez applied for various entrepreneurial soft funding grants such as Innoexplorer from Innovationsfonden, Spark-Denmark from Novo Nordisk Fonden, Spinout Denmark from Villum Fonden, and Food & Bio Cluster Denmark. “These grants were key in validating our technology in real conditions,” she said.

SymbioMatch was then accepted into the Venture Lab programme at the BioInnovation Institute (BII), which provided financial support of 4 million DKK and a 12-month programme for team development and scientific maturation. This support has been ‘instrumental’, said Suárez, as the start-up looks to secure the necessary funding as it looks to bring its solutuions to market.

SymbioMatch has so far attracted around €1million in soft funding (including the 4 million DKK from BII). As a member of BII’s Venture House​ programme it also has the opportunity of receiving a further 10M DKK (€1.3 million).

Read more: Is it time, finally, for biologicals to shine?

While there is huge interest in biologicals, however, this is not the first time those in sector have been pushed their promise. The failures in this space have unfortunately so far exceeded the success stories, with growers often dubious, citing high costs and low efficacy.  

“I’m happy to see an increasing number of biological solutions,” noted Suárez, “as they play a crucial role in promoting sustainability while also ensuring high yields.”

SymbioMatch is differentiating itself through its novel approach to developing customised biofertilisers, she maintained.

“Our unique capability to identify the optimal match between a plant, soil, and symbiotic bacteria allows us to create a new generation of biofertilisers that are precise, predictable, and efficient at increasing crop yields. Importantly, our products are designed to enhance legume yield in both depleted and healthy soils. We are committed to making our solutions accessible to all farmers, regardless of the conditions of their fields.”

A significant unmet need in the farming community is for biofertilisers that work consistently across different environments, according to Suárez. “Our most innovative strategy is to customise biofertilisers for use with specific legume crops and environments and soil types. This ensures that farmers can rely on a product that will work effectively in their specific conditions and with their selected legume crop. By filling this white space, we aim to transform the agricultural industry and promote more plant protein production.”

Biologicals biggest challenge? The cost

In the short term, SymbioMatch’s primary goal is to validate the performance of its products in real-world conditions across various geographical and weather conditions. “We aim to provide farmers with evidence-based results, ensuring our products work effectively in all types of conditions, thereby reducing the risk for farmers,” said Suárez.

“At SymbioMatch, we produce microbial biofertilisers containing natural nitrogen-fixing bacteria that can transform atmospheric nitrogen into nitrate, which legumes can assimilate. This means our bacteria can directly add nitrate to the plant. Our initial focus is on nitrate, the most essential macronutrients for plant growth, but in the long term, we plan to combine our products with other available biologicals. Since no single microorganism can provide all the macronutrients that crops need, our vision is that one day, farmers will be able to provide the full NPK using only biosolutions, achieving the highest possible yield in a sustainable way.

Field_trial_Germany
Last year, SymbioMatch conducted its first field trial where it observed a 7.2% yield increase compared to the standard practice for faba beans.

“While this might sound idealistic, we believe that nature has the solutions. At SymbioMatch, we don’t create new microbes, instead, we’ve developed tools to identify the best symbiotic soil bacteria for legume crops. Therefore, our task is to continue finding more solutions in nature and translating them into biosolutions for farmers.”

One of the company’s biggest challenges, however, is that its products are more expensive than current solutions. “This is largely due to our production strategy,” observed Suárez. “Since our products are customised, our fermentations are small in size, but we need to produce several in parallel to obtain the different formulations. Industrial fermenters have been mostly designed for large-scale fermentation processes. Therefore, we need to invest more in R&D to help reduce the costs associated with small-scale fermentation. We believe that overcoming these challenges will be key to our success and the wider adoption of biologicals in the agricultural sector.”

Her most valuable lessons learned?  

“The most important lesson I’ve learned is that just because others may think your goals are impossible, it doesn’t mean they truly are impossible,” revealed Suárez. “The concept of personalised medicine is widely accepted, yet the idea of customised biofertilisers has often been met with scepticism, particularly since agriculture has traditionally not received the same level of support as other sectors like health.

“However, I believe we’re witnessing a shift, largely driven by concerns around ‘security’. As a society, we’ve invested heavily in maintaining good health, as it’s something that can never be taken for granted. Similarly, food production has generally been secure, but in recent years, we’ve seen an increase in massive losses of agricultural production, indicating that our food security is at risk.

“As a result, there’s a growing interest in research and support for more sustainable farming practices. The idea of customised biofertilisers, which seemed impossible a decade ago when I began this research, is now gaining traction. This journey has taught me the importance of perseverance, innovation, and the willingness to challenge conventional wisdom in pursuit of more sustainable solutions.”

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