Deep Tech Innovations from the Ground Up

By Alan Cohen 11.19.20

Do unto those downstream as you would have those upstream do unto you.

- Wendell Berry

Sometimes the world’s great innovations are right in front of us, right under our nose or the ground upon which we tread. When DCVC introduced me to Pivot Bio founder and CEO Karsten Temme a few years ago (before I even joined the firm), he shared the company’s vision for more efficiently feeding the world and being more climate neutral. Karsten is a person with a farmer’s heart (a steward of the land) and a scientist’s brain. With a thoughtful, locked-in gaze and a precise gathering of words, he brought me on Pivot’s compelling and complex journey of using machine learning and microbial biology to solve a global-scale problem – replacing synthetic fertilizer for corn, wheat, sorghum and other cereal crops with nitrogen-producing microbes.

It comes as no surprise to those of us who have been on this journey with Pivot Bio that it was awarded a prime spot on the TIME 2020 Best Inventions list. Pivot Bio’s PROVEN® is one of the few innovations that can move the climate clock backwards and improve farmer economics at the same time.

Pivot is the leader of the in-field biological nitrogen fixation space. It has conducted thousands of trials across the continental U.S. in various soil types and weather conditions. Ultimately, Pivot is poised to replace most of the synthetic fertilizer on millions of acres of prime farmland. And in doing so, it will produce better outcomes for farmers.

Synthetic fertilizer was one of the most important innovations of the industrial revolution. The approach to creating synthetic fertilizer, the Haber-Bosch process, was widely deployed for manufacturing it in the early 20th century and gave farmers the ability to deliver nitrogen into the agricultural cycle. This instantly and radically changed the agricultural process, producing crops that were both higher in quality and more bountiful in yield. Farmers have been steadily using synthetic fertilizer as a critical input to produce food for 100 years.

This is an area long overdue for new innovation, one that is less taxing on the environment. To be clear, the bill for synthetic nitrogen fertilizer has come due.

Synthetic nitrogen:

• Decomposes into nitrous oxide and is released into the air as a highly potent greenhouse gas, accounting for 5% of global warming;

• Leaches into waterways creating pollution, including nitrates in our drinking water and contributing to 500 ocean dead zones (places so toxic that nothing can live);

• Must be applied during very specific planting cycles and requires costly, specialized equipment; and

• Can be harmful to the soil (acidification, mineral depletion).

The process of applying most synthetic nitrogen is wasteful. It is like ordering a plate of food and knowing half will be thrown away. Once the bulk chemical is applied, it’s out of a farmer’s control. In the best circumstances, they know that roughly half of that synthetic nitrogen will never reach the plant. As farmers experience unpredictable rains and rampant flooding, the loss can be even greater.

To gain a sense of the magnitude of this innovation, according to the USDA, there are about 130 million acres planted with corn and wheat and about 90 million acres of soybeans under cultivation. Reawakening microbial nitrogen production in 30 million acres, a fraction of U.S. cereal crop production, has the potential to remove 20,000 metric tons of nitrous oxide, which is the equivalent of taking 1.5 million cars off the road every year.

It is deep pride that we at DCVC have backed the Pivot Bio journey and could not be happier that TIME recognized the company with its annual Best Inventions award, underscoring the impact of innovating in a long fallow area with and a brilliant team that cares as much for our land as much as our farmers, as it reimagines the agricultural process.

Said simply, sometimes innovation means you have to look down, not just up.