RESEARCH TRIANGLE PARK – In the face of potential company-wide layoffs, AgTech startup AgBiome is exploring all its options.

But co-CEOs Eric Ward and Scott Uknes told TechWire in an exclusive interview that, whatever happens, they believe their mission will continue to be successful.

“The two products that we have on the market, Howler and Theia, are fungicides, and they’re category leading efficacy,” said Uknes. “So the growers that use them see great benefit from them, and they’re EPA registered, but they have the safest reentry period—they’re basically the safest kind of products you have. There’s no residues that get measured or anything like that.”

Scott Uknes, Board of Directors, Co-CEO at AgBiome | Image provided by AgBiome

Uknes says that he’s confident that both the biological fungicide products will continue to lead with no issues.

“We feel confident that, no matter what happens, those products are still going to be out there and fulfill the part of the mission that we built for ourselves,” said Uknes.

Employees rally around agtech startup as CEOs battle ‘sickening’ venture capital climate

Ward agreed that Howler and Theia “are going to continue no matter what” after receiving such positive feedback from growers.

“It’ll either be under our umbrella or somebody else’s,” said Ward. “And obviously, we’re gonna work our butts off to try to keep as much of what we built together, in whatever scenario goes forward.”

Eric Ward, Board of Directors, Co-CEO at AgBiome | Image provided by AgBiome

‘The most important investment area in the world’

Ward said that investors “want to invest” in agriculture—and that many are looking for a company like AgBiome.

“They have a hard time finding companies that have a real story and real products that are working,” said Ward. “And so we’ve had tons of interest.”

Still, the co-CEOs warned employees this week that there might be serious layoffs—because the company is having trouble raising funds in today’s tight capital market.

“Again, it’s more of a consequence of the current environment, that it’s hard to get the first person to kind of come off the sidelines,” said Ward.

Uknes called the agriculture segment “arguably the most important investment area in the world.”

“If you don’t have food for a couple of days, you don’t have society,” said Uknes. “And we have unique technology that really makes it better, both for growers but also for consumers of the food. So it’s been a little bit of a conundrum why there isn’t more investment activity in this area.”

‘No Matter What Happens’, AgBiome products will help ‘feed the world responsibly’

Despite the struggle to raise capital in this environment, both co-CEOs shared positive news about the company’s products—and its platform.

In addition to the product side, there’s a second side of AgBiome: the discovery engine, AgBiome’s tech platform that’s designed to screen microbes for specific use cases.

“There’s about a trillion unique species of microbes on the planet, and by around 2010, 2012 maybe, only 100 or 1,000 or so were used for anything,” said Uknes. “And, so this leaves this almost unlimited resource that we could deploy for all kinds of things, including human therapeutics, but also biomining, all kinds of tools and technology generated. And where we took the products to the market ourselves was in agriculture, but we partner with other companies, like ElevateBio, and the subsidiary LifeEDIT, to approach other markets.”

(AgBiome spun off its genome editing platform into a new company, LifeEDIT Therapeutics, in October 2020; LifeEDIT was then bought by ElevateBio, a Cambridge, Mass.-based cell and gene therapy holding company, in 2020).

The co-CEOs shared enthusiasm for AgBiome’s future on both the product and the discovery engine side.

“Our vision statement for the crop protection businesses is to feed the world responsibly,” said Uknes. “And, I think we’re gonna still be able to do that no matter what happens with this situation we’re currently in.”

The challenge, they reiterated, is raising funds. So the company is exploring all options—while being transparent with employees that one option would be company-wide layoffs.

The Gates Foundation support

One partner that’s been a long-time supporter of AgBiome is the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

“We’ve had a really good relationship with them, going back to our Series B financing rounds, so they were lead investors in that back in 2015,” said Ward. “And then we’ve had three really successful projects with them, big ones with our company. We also participated in a smaller consortium with a bunch of academics early on, so they’ve been a major source of funding for us, and it’s been great for us, very synergistic to our discovery efforts.”

But according to Ward—the purpose of that funding and those grant-supported projects with the Gates Foundation was always to turn development over to growers.

“Now we’ve got actual product candidates for the 50 poorest countries, for critical disease insect nematode control needs over there,” said Ward. “So a big focus over the next year is going to be transitioning those products into development with local partners in those countries in Africa.”

Both Uknes and Ward clarified that the transition of these products over to the growers was always the intention and is not at all connected to AgBiome’s current fundraising needs.

“They’re transitioning from being, kind of, discovery projects to being development projects,” said Uknes. Ward added, “The whole purpose of it is not to make any of these guys dependent on us, but rather to supply the technology to them.”

Despite success — potential layoffs

Despite the two successful products, the promising discovery engine, and successful projects with the Gates Foundation — the headline is that there could be layoffs.

Ward told TechWire that the co-CEOs felt strongly about making the announcement company-wide this week.

“When you’ve been working hard at raising money for a while, and you’re not getting positive signals, what do you do? It doesn’t make sense to drive full speed ahead into the wall,” said Ward. “So we, in the interest of, really, looking out for as many of our folks as possible and preserving the the North Star of company, the mission, it made sense for us to do what we did when we did which is, effectively, give everybody notice. That gives the maximum number of people the most opportunity to make a smooth transition to the next thing, in case that’s needed.”

Ward and Uknes said that they’re using the announcement as a way to be transparent with employees while working toward other options.

“It also gives us a window of time when something positive can still transpire for the company,” said Ward.