When he set out to produce a biologically-based pesticide, Pukekohe plant pathologist Stephen Ford advertised and asked the general public to send in dead insects that were covered in fungus or had died for no apparent reason.
From literally thousands of insects sent to Greentide Ltd., Ford initially selected 105 fungal strains, and settled on six.
“We had to put in place robust screening practices, with the number one criteria to be no human toxicity,” Ford says. “They also had to be physiologically dormant or dead at 37 degrees – we didn’t want them having the ability to grow in peoples’ lungs.”
Ford said that these entomophathogens fungi, (entomopathogens may also include bacteria, viruses and nematodes) had to pass five critical processes before being considered as a biological candidate.
This kicked off his research 12 years ago, but it took until 2006 before Ford came up with a stable formulation that could be used in New Zealand’s main vegetable-growing region of Pukekohe and which he considered would be the control equivalent of chemical pesticides.
It bombed; again indicating to growers that while biological controls may be good in theory, they were still failing in practice. “It was one of the most humbling experiences of my life,” he says.
Going back to his laboratory, by 2008 Ford had “cracked the technology”, and now has produced what he considers his generation three formulation.
“This is a consistent, robust control that is as good as chemistry,” Ford says, this time proven effective by local growers.
The production of a formulation, that ensures that enough spores are sprayed onto crops, is part of Greentide’s intellectual property Ford says. There are five ingredients, including metabolites, that his technology is built on, enabling the biological control to work consistently. In fact it is possible to eat Greentide’s product that is known as Vertikil with no ill effect; yet the product is environmentally benign and works as well as chemistry.
Greentide’s other requirement has been not to make growers need to do anything different to how they use chemical pesticides. Through the company’s production processes this has been achieved, with a final solution sprayed on crops having 10 million fungal spores per milliliter of spray.
Ford’s patented all the fungal strains, though “the growing processes, our critical paths in our intellectual property, are not written down.” He says spore production is a bi-phasic system, in which spores on an initial solid agar are put into a liquid environment, and then taken back to a solid media. This media/spore concentrate is then harvested to create soluble granules, which, in a water soluble bag, is thrown into the spray tank. “There’s no change in the growers’ technology required whatsoever,” Ford says.
As one of 10 finalists in the University of Auckland Business School’s Entrepreneurs’ Challenge 2010, in a couple of years time Ford wants Greentide to be a globally dominant participant in biological insect control.
In an insect control market worth at least US$25 billion, in which Greentide’s been constantly capital raising, “our biggest fear is that we can’t ramp up fast enough,” Ford says.
If the company wins one of the challenge’s prizes, it would be used to purchase more bioreactors – the German-designed, India-constructed machinery required to produce Vertikil. This would allow him to partly short-circuit the 6 – 8 month production lead time.
Ford is flying the two and a half tonne vessels here at the end of November, and winning the prize would allow him to buy another set and get them set up here to again boost production.
“I have a great desire to build up a real industry in New Zealand based on biological products that are a global world first,” he says. “We have the technology and the knowledge, we’re expanding all the time.”