Dr. Minshad Ansari, Founder & CEO, Bionema Ltd.
In an exclusive interview with Pravin Prashant, Executive Editor, Indian Chemical News, Dr. Minshad Ansari, Founder & CEO, Bionema Ltd. shares insights about the company, current operations, latest initiatives, funding, range of products, India plans, US and EU plans, and future revenue streams
Please tell us about your company?
Bionema is dedicated for biocontrol, crop protection, stimulation for crop enhancement, and biofertilizer for crop nutrition. More importantly, we focus on formulation and delivery systems. Having spent around 15 years in academic research in India, Belgium and the UK, I founded Bionema in 2021. While we have been working on a few interesting projects, I must say that the entrepreneurial journey from academia to industry is a very classical transformation.
Bionema has recently received grant funding from Innovate UK and that helped us to develop a groundbreaking technology called IncapsuleX, the encapsulation formulation or microbial microencapsulation, essentially a microbial formulation for pest and disease control.
You have spent around 15 years in Belgium, India, and the UK so what portion of your research happened in these countries?
My earlier study in the area was during my post-graduation from Aligarh Muslim University. Following that I joined ICRISAT for a few years before moving to Belgium in 1998 until 2005 for higher studies as a part of the PhD programme. It was followed by a one year post-doctoral fellowship as I moved to the UK in 2005 until 2012 with another seven and half years of research at Swansea University.
When I began my journey in academia my idea about entrepreneurship was limited. The initial phase was very difficult and painful but years of research and dedication at Bionema resulted in development and commercialization of a number of technologies for the UK and other markets. In the early days, we commercialized three products and those were for pest management. Those were patented and later acquired by Syngenta in 2021 and that provided a boost to the company as well as moral support. Around the same time we were recognized as one of the Top 20 leading companies in the world. After that acquisition, we started working on a number of other technologies which we have in the pipeline.
Biopesticides have been criticized in many countries, probably just because the farmers and growers are not satisfied with the efficacy which has to do with two things, one is the innovation and the secondly the formulation. Unfortunately, these two things are very much limited in the market. So we have a few products in the market and we will have a few innovations in the market as well. So again my focus is very much on developing innovative products and formulations. The microencapsulation project was funded by Innovate UK and it really helped us to work on this ground breaking technology. The product is not yet in the market, but very soon it will be available in the UK and then EU. Later, we plan to go to the North American market as well.
Apart from the funding by Innovate UK and acquisition of a few of your products, what is the investment that you have made in this company?
Raising investment is a tough journey. We got seed rounds raised in 2018 and 2019 worth £680,000. During that time I realized that most of the investors will ask about the turnover and for technology companies it is very difficult to raise any turnover when they are in the early days of development. But I think I have learned a lot and we are utilizing the same, in this case to now raising £5 million in Series A, expected to get closed before Christmas 2023. We have a number of investors who are interested, particularly looking for the Syngenta deal where we have demonstrated commercialization and innovation and secondly, they are seeing a very powerful range of products that are coming out in pipelines.
We will have another round of £10 million which will then bring us to the other markets. The first round will help us to accelerate the market where we will start selling products in the UK market and then we will be registering products in the UK, Canada, EU, and Mexico. The registration will take at least three to four years before the product will come in the market.
Can you please explain the USP of RootVita?
RootVita is part of our 10 years’ research and it falls into both the categories of biostimulants and biofertilizers. It is a unique blend of biofertilizers, PGPR (Plant Growth Promoting Rhizobacteria), essential nutrients, prebiotics, and vitamins. The product will be used in the turfgrass industry, horticulture, and forestry in the UK.
The benefit of the product is that it can fix the nitrogen and phosphorus besides silica and contributes micro nutrients, improving soil health. Therefore, it is an all in one basket compared to some products in the market which are individually applied for nitrogen fixing, phosphorus alkalization, and silica. All these micronutrients and nutrients are very important for the plants to release their stress and make them healthier, providing strength to fight pests.
What are the other products that you are planning to launch in future?
We have a number of products, especially the two upcoming products from the microbial range. It’s called the Metarhizium, Meta 101, a bioinsecticide designed for controlling soil pests, currently getting registered in Canada. There is another product, Meta 101 SC formulation that is also getting registered in Canada and will follow. And the third one is the microencapsulation technology platform which is not a product but that will actually include formulating a number of microbials with better efficacy. And that's where farmers and growers basically will get better value for money.
We also have one product, a bioinsecticide in the US market and that is in collaboration with a company. We also have four bio fertilizer products launched in the UK, which are BioNfix-PA, BioNfix-AC, BioNfix-AV, and BioNfix-AL. There are seven other products in biostimulants. Those are already launched in the UK and now we are preparing for registration in the EU and the same product will register in Canada, US, and Latin countries. We also have registered some bio-based polymers which help boost the efficacy of existing or new pesticides.
When do you feel these products will get commercialized?
The seven biostimulants and four biofertilizers have been already launched in the UK market. The Meta 101, which is a bioinsecticide microbial product is going to come out sometime in early 2026 in the Canadian market followed by the US, and later in Australia, New Zealand, EU, and the UK.
How big is the market for these products and when are you planning to launch?
When we talk about biological agriculture which includes biocontrol, it is about US $6.6 billion worth market size. The second category where RootVita comes in is biostimulants with market size of US $3.5 billion and biofertilizer market is US $3.1 billion. In total, we are looking for US $14.2 billion which is mainly covering US, EU, Canada, and Latin countries. Out of all these countries, Brazil has basically simplified the regulatory system and is now leading in this segment.
Out of US $14 billion you talked about, what would be your market share?
If Bionema continues accelerating everything as per plan, we will be looking for the US $100 million market in the next five years.
What about India plans?
Recently, we have opened a subsidiary in India, but I believe that the Indian biopesticide market is not mature enough compared to the EU and elsewhere. We are looking for another 10 years before we can do anything in the Indian market. There are one or two products about which we are talking about to a few very visible players in India and those can be marketed once a deal is reached The problem is that these products are costly as they are being manufactured in the UK or in the EU. That makes these very difficult to sell in developing countries whether in Africa or India. Therefore, those products need to be produced in India if we want to be competitive in the market.
Which AgroChem companies in India are you in talks for these products?
We have discussed with many players in India and manufacturing might be possible if the deal goes through. They have already tested it for cotton bollworm, all soft bodied insects or other threats. This is a sucrose based product originated from coconut and has been registered as a bio-insecticide in the US. We expect that product registration in India will not take a lot of time because it is already approved and certified as organic bio-insecticide as well. It is a very good product which will fill the gaps in the Indian market.
What regulatory obstacles or hurdles do you think are for the Indian market?
All these products including bioinsecticides, biopesticides or biofungicides are regulated in India by the Bureau of Indian Standards (BIS) New Delhi and Faridabad. We have seen that if the product is already registered in the US and EU, there is always an edge and it makes things a little bit easier, however, it has to go through full registration.
We are talking to our partners to register the products in India. The deals are getting finalized and hopefully by March 2024, we might launch the product. If not then it might take another 12 months for the regulatory process.
Which product are you initially planning to launch in the Indian market?
It is an organic product that has an active ingredient derived from coconut. It has been registered as an insecticide in the EU and designed for killing the soft bodied insects. There are some pesticides and insecticide there in the market but most of them have become resistant. So this is another opportunity for the biocontrol industry to come up with a solution which can not only be used as an alternative but can fill the gaps in the market.
How will farmers benefit from your product?
Firstly, the product has a two year shelf life so that they can store and use it for multiple seasons. Secondly, if the product is produced in India, it will not be costly, so we will still be competitive. Thirdly, they can immediately control their plant diseases wherever they are finding their insecticide is not working or has become resistant. As we have already done trials in the UK, EU, Canada, and Mexico, we are very confident that the product is already working. There are hundreds of publications already available to demonstrate that the product works.
What's your plan for 2024?
We are signing some sort of deals with multinationals for US markets and we are going to soon launch in the EU. The decision will start from March 2024. So a lot of preparation is going on for launching this product. Initially we will be doing it in a few states in the US but later on we will have a deal with those companies that are very interested to launch or market this product there. Bionema's business model is to invent the product and make it more interesting to multinationals. We take all the risk from that point to sell and supply to their market, helping them on the technical side because that's where our strength is, whereas their strength is very much on the commercial side.
What is the current status of your revenue stream?
We are still in millions but we have built a product worth US $50 million IP patent and that is how it is attracting investors otherwise it is very difficult to get investment. Unless you are not very clear about the revenue, getting investment is not a problem, but if you are not then it is difficult.
What would be your annual revenue during 2024?
We are looking at making close to US $4 million based on EU and US market foray. If we launch into Mexico and Brazil markets, we will exceed a little bit more. That's the kind of optimistic figures we are looking for.
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