The crop science company FMC is acquiring the pheromone producer BioPhero for $200 million.
BioPhero, a Danish start-up that spun out of Irina Borodina’s lab at the Technical University of Denmark in 2016, produces insect pheromones by fermenting biologically engineered yeast. Instead of killing insects, pheromones control pest populations by making it harder for them to find a mate and reproduce.
BioPhero says its fermentation process significantly reduces the cost of production compared to catalytic chemistry approaches used by other companies. Currently, pheromone products are only used in high-value crops like grapes, fruit trees, and other specialty crops. BioPhero and FMC hope lower production costs will allow them to sell pheromones for insect control in row crops like corn, soybeans and cotton. FMC estimates that the current market for pheromones includes 2 to 3 million hectares of crops, but expanding to row crops could increase that number to more than 100 million hectares.
Mark Trimmer, who leads the biologicals research firm Dunham Trimmer, says fermentation would likely cut down on the cost of input materials, compared to chemical production.
“There’s a lot more upfront work, with molecular biology, to make this work,” he says. “But if they’ve jumped through all those hoops, they might have an interesting approach.”
Bénédicte Flambard, FMC’s director of Global Plant Health, says that upfront work is exactly what makes BioPhero attractive. The company had to insert multiple insect genes into the yeast, and also had to ensure that the yeast could excrete the final product. “To pull all this machinery into the yeast and make it effective at producing this molecule was not just a given,” she says.
Flambard said the company was also interested in the lower environmental impact of pheromone products, which shouldn’t affect non-target species.
BioPhero says it’s already producing pheromones at commercial levels, but doesn’t expect to launch its first products until at least 2023. Initial products will target the cotton bollworm and fall armyworm, found in corn, cotton, and soybean fields worldwide, as well as rice stem borers, present in rice fields in Asia.
FMC plans to sell pheromone products in combination with its synthetic insecticides. The company says each kind of product targets a different part of the insect life cycle and, used together, they achieve better control.
Trimmer also points out that BioPhero will also benefit significantly from FMC’s strong position in the traditional insecticide market. “They know this market well. They know what the needs are,” he says. “They understand the grower and how they potentially could use these products.”
Meanwhile, companies using chemical production routes are also scaling up. The start-up Provivi is working with Lanxess to increase production of a pheromone that controls the European grapevine moth.