I’ll Never Find Another You: Provivi’s protecting crops by confusing pests in their search for romance

May 10, 2018 |

The single most refreshing event on the bioeconomy calendar — the MLS Capital Fund’s annual Thought Leadership meeting — has come and gone for another year and the participants have emerged from Berkeley holding their heads, sifting through the annual firehose-style high-pressure bath of bioeconomy innovation and perspective.

If you see someone wandering the streets near Emeryville looking dazed, confused, excited, and a brain possibly on fire, by all means offer that person a headache remedy, a healthy juice, and ask them to tell you what was said at this “pencils-down, Chatham Rules” discussion and debate over the future of genetics, nutrition, crop protection, biomaterials, chemicals and more.

While the specifics of what was said are sworn to secrecy, one of the topics under discussion was 40 percent or higher maize crop losses now being experienced in Africa because of the Fall Anyworm pest. The losses are causing up to 10 percent GDP drop in some countries because of the importance of maize production in these national economies. 

It’s a catastrophe in the making and a real test for some of the bioeconomy’s emerging technologies. Because a 10 percent drop in GDP in a matter of a season or two — that’s not entirely dissimilar to the downdraft impact of the Great Depression. So it’s an economic issue, a food issue, a grower issue, and a feedstock issue for those who use corn for other uses.

How can this be happening in 2018? The worm is particularly dangerous because it attacks corn at all phases of the crop cycle. 

Why aren’t there solutions being deployed? Generally, the cures are so cost-intensive that they destroy money faster than the worm, it is more affordable to do nothing than to do something. A lot is at risk.

Along comes Provivi, which we have profiled before, and we like to think of them as a sort of anti-eHarmony technology for pests. Pests spread their woe by mating like crazy, and Provivi aggressively disrupts the mating process. It’s like finding the Seeker’s anthemic “I’ll Never Find Another You” in liquid form.

In a nutshell, no mating, no eggs, no caterpillars, no damage. Essentially, through pheromone technology, the males are not able to find their prospective mates and fly around aimlessly. 

But what makes Provivi so effective? Two special factors — the ability to get costs to under $1 per acre, and the ability to reach scaled production.

The technology’s efficacy increases with size and time — unlike an insecticide being sprayed to kill a pest, this is a technology that is interrupting the mating cycle. The impact builds over time and works better ion large fields where there are less likely to be females arriving from an untreated plot of land.

In the end, this is about cost. The technology produces a pheromone from cheap vegetable oil using biosynthesis and olefin metathesis. You arrive at complicated beautiful molecule from a low-cost starting point. And for those of you who follow Elevance, it’s not entirely different to that technology which also uses olefin metathesis.

What’s been demonstrated to date?

In row crops, a 3-4X reduction in cost compared to conventional practices in the field. It has been scaled to production of more than 100KG. The first tons of production are targeted for Q4 2018.

Provivi is on the move. They’ve entered into a partnership for 50 ton per year production, and this week have embarked on production at 15,000 liter fermentation scale. Provivi now has rights to 23 issued patents.

The trial results

The company has been down in Argentina for sweet corn trials of late. and achieved a 30% reduction in insecticide sprays and 19% yield gain. Overall? A total value creation of $650 per hectare. That’s significant, especially because the comparison is not to “doing nothing” but a comparison with the “local conventional practice”. With tight grower margins in the 10-15 percent range, that’s significant.

How does Provivi price its service? Today, the company’s goal is to ensure that 1/3 of the value creation comes back to the product. Today, that’s a trial-by-trial process — ultimately, think of a set price.

Now, let’s be open about the fact that Argentina is an attractive market for generating positive results because there is a more optimal pest pressure on the crops. You see, too little pressure, you have less of a target for improvement, Too much pressure, the technology will need to be combined with other more conventional practices to have the desired impact under conditions of real urgency.

The Value Proposition

In the end, it’s yield protection, cost savings and resistance management – the latter because this technology would compete with biologicals that may trigger resistance and where longevity becomes a factor.

In Provivi’s world, the males never smarten up and they never find the females. It’s a big giant episode of Gilligan’s Island, where Gilligan never hooks up with Ginger or Mary Ann.

It’ll be a few years before the technology is commercialized and is cash flowing. Though the Series B round closed, there’s bound to be a Series C out there somewhere.

Key reasons to invest? The technology is protected, it’s tolling scale, it’s derisked for row crops, there’s a first mover advantage in core markets. And, there’s a documented value creation for the grower.

Provivi values

Perhaps most interesting, Provivi’s values.

For one, though they don’t put it on the website, Provivi doesn’t kill anything. Rather, they have industrialized romantic disappointment at pest scale. They give crops a future by denying same to the pests. But, really, “no organisms were harmed during the making of this revolution.” That’s cool.

But there’s more. As we have written elsewhere, values drive habits, habits drive actions, and actions change the world. Though values are “soft” they are not insignificant, they might well be the most significant thing that a company does to make itself sustainable — not only for the environment, but for customers and staff. Of all the value sets I think we’ve ever seen around the halls of the advanced bioeconomy, these are our fave. So we’ll close with these. And you can learn more about Provivi here.


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