Plants live in symbiosis with the microbes and fungi in their environment. When this balance is disrupted, it can lead to diseases. 11BIOMICS is rebalancing ecosystems to fight off plant diseases, such as powdery mildew on cannabis plants. Their microbial spray not only treats the disease, but can also prevent it.
I chatted with Siv Watkins, CEO of 11BIOMICS, about her transition from academic scientist to entrepreneur.
How did you become interested in microbiological research?
When I was little I was a gross little child and used to read a lot about horrible diseases and plagues, and that’s when I started to learn about bacteria and viruses. When I grew up and started to discover the broader impact of microbiology, I was consistently astonished by what microbes can do, and how they structure life on this planet. It became pretty clear to me that in some ways, human scientists were approaching industrial microbiology the wrong way — and rather than trying to make them do things they weren’t used to, we should be mimicking what microbes already do in the natural world.
How did you decide to start the company and how does your team come together?
Before we started this company I was a successful academic scientist, and I loved teaching but I was feeling increasingly frustrated with and restricted by the academy. After a very rough semester I decided to leave my academic job for the good of my soul, and since I needed a new job we decided to start 11BIOMICS.
My co-founder, Jeff, and I have been extremely close friends for a long time, and through his work as a therapist and addictions specialist, and my background as a mental health advocate in the sciences, we started interacting with the medical cannabis industry in New Mexico, particularly the growers. That’s when we realized that making good medicine from cannabis requires good science. And here we are.
How does your technology work? What was the key insight?
The medicinal benefits of cannabis, whether we’re talking hemp or marijuana, are a product of a healthy plant. You can’t make high quality medicine from a sick plant. Cannabis today is so overbred and is grown in extremely high density environments, which means pest control is a huge problem. Every single grower in the US is engaged in a constant battle with insect and fungal pests. And they’re all using the same ineffective and potentially harmful treatment methods, which means we’re observing, in real-time, the evolution of very resistant pests. This is actually a problem in agriculture generally — the development of resistance to pesticides and things like azoles represents a real, immediate threat to food security and public health. So there’s not much point to escalating the situation with even nastier chemicals.
Instead, we look to what happens in nature. Wild cannabis, growing on the side of a mountain somewhere, is much better at defending itself against diseases and pests. Why? Plants in the wild recruit microbes to fight disease on their behalf. These microbes are highly specific — they’ve evolved and grown in collaboration with the plant for the entirety of it’s existence. We mimic this process — find the microbes specifically associated with that plant that can fight diseases and pests on its behalf, grow them up, and return them to the plant at therapeutic levels. Our method is highly targeted to specific plant species (so it’s very effective), it doesn’t promote resistance (we isolate many different microbes and periodically switch them up) and it doesn’t rely in any way on the introduction of chemicals to a crop.
What lessons did you learn transitioning from science to entrepreneur at IndieBio?
I had to let go of my desire for perfection very quickly, which was a real challenge for someone coming from such a detail-oriented background. But it was also truly refreshing to have the freedom to be so creative. I was able to reconfigure my focus on just always moving forward, always making progress, always building. I have always loved tinkering and prodding and poking in the lab — just doing stuff for the sake of curiosity and to see what would happen. Four months in the IndieBio lab has been the equivalent of extreme tinkering.
How do you think your success as a company will change the cannabis industry?
We’ve demonstrated very clearly that our proof of concept works for treating fungal diseases on hemp and cannabis — and we have sales to show it. We’re now working on figuring out how to do the same thing for insects. Cannabis is a really important crop for lots of reasons, but we really want to be able to bring this approach to other large-scale agricultural crops for obvious reasons: an effective, naturally-derived alternative to pesticides. I think we can make a huge difference with the right collaborators — we could be looking at an absolute paradigm shift in how the world looks at sustainable food security.
What milestones are in the near future?
From our home in New Mexico we’re working with existing and new customers to provide integrated pest management programs for commercial cannabis and hemp growers of all kinds. After we’ve raised our seed funding we’re going to expand our scientific team to kick our R&D in to overdrive, and based on the huge amount of data we’re producing already, we want to produce the first cannabis-specific biopesticide to be regulated by the EPA.