At a glance
The world is hungry – and getting hungrier.
With our global population expected to exceed 9 billion by 2050, the pressure on agricultural systems to intensify is rising.
Alongside that increased demand is a growing reliance on synthetic chemicals to keep at bay the pests and diseases that can harm crops. However, people are also growing aware of these products’ toxicity, and harmful impacts on human health, the environment and our biodiversity.
Increasingly, says Callaghan Innovation agritech customer manager Ashna Khan, the world is looking to nature to provide new solutions for agriculture: “People are shying away from chemical usage, as consumers in particular are becoming more conscious of what’s going into their food and the environment.”
Industry figures back up this trend. While the total global market for agricultural chemicals is growing annually at around 5%, the market for biopesticides – biologically sourced solutions to combat pests – is growing by around 15% a year.
A factor that’s historically hampered the uptake among growers of biological solutions, says Khan, has been efficacy: they haven’t consistently worked.
But crop-protection business Biotelliga reckons it’s cracked this conundrum in its pursuit of biologically-based technologies to protect crops from pests and disease.
Chief Executive Dr Damien Fleetwood says Auckland-based Biotelliga is in the late stages of development of two products – a sprayable bioinsecticide and a sprayable biofungicide – which will be registered for use in NZ within the next two years.
“One of the critical aspects of the technologies we’re developing is, yes they’re close to, and in some cases more effective than, synthetic chemistry, but they’re also consistent enough that the grower can use them and know they’ll work.”
The R&D and licensing business has 14 staff, 11 of which are scientists. Fleetwood says Biotelliga, which was founded in 2009, has been able to tackle the efficacy issue successfully because of its deep scientific understanding of the interaction between plants and fungi, which forms the foundation of its technologies.
“We’re focused on identifying natural crop-protection traits – features in nature that are already there protecting plants from pests and diseases – and utilising those to bring them into the modern cropping system.”
“And while we’ve got technologies we’re developing for today, which are sprayable, we’re also working on capabilities for the future that involve identifying fungi that will live within the plant for the life of the plant – essentially vaccinating the seed to protect a crop for life.”
Biotelliga harnesses Callaghan Innovation support to ramp up R&D
Despite its strong scientific knowledge, Biotelliga has still needed support to ramp up its R&D efforts.
Crucial to Biotelliga’s progress has been accessing the capability of Callaghan Innovation’s Process Engineering team, which develops and evaluates industrial manufacturing processes for products derived from natural materials.
For example, one method for manufacturing Biotelliga’s bioinsecticide product involves extracting a fungus that lives inside grass plants, and the business has worked with Callaghan Innovation scientists, technical experts, and accessed the agency’s equipment, to develop botanical extraction technology.
“Being able to access Callaghan Innovation’s expertise in process engineering, particularly at pilot scale, is very valuable to us; carrying out these processes at pilot scale is very expensive, and something small businesses just can’t afford to do themselves.”
For example, a key programme of work for the company is looking at how endophytes – fungi that live within plants – can be used in biological crop protection. The company’s initial investigation work in this area was carried out by a student supported by a Callaghan Innovation grant. That person is now a key, full-time employee leading the company’s research in this area.
“Callaghan Innovation has supported us in a very tangible way by allowing us to bring on students to look into things that we wouldn’t have been able to do off our own bat,” says Fleetwood.
Biotelliga’s innovative concept is also the kind of CleanTech that Callaghan Innovation’s keen to support as the agency works towards its goal of boosting NZ into the top 10 countries ranked on the Cleantech Group Innovation Index (CGII) by 2022 (NZ’s currently ranked 22nd). The CGII forecasts which countries have the greatest potential to produce CleanTech startups that will commercialise innovations over the next decade.
Strong business backing
While Fleetwood describes Biotelliga as “a company of biologists”, it also has a heavy-hitting board of advisors and directors. This includes its chair, former ANZ chair John Judge, and director of strategy Wolfgang Roesch – a former senior manager at multinational Bayer CropScience, who was instrumental in the introduction of biologicals as a mainstream business for global crop protection.
The NZ business’s combination of strong business backing, technical expertise and Callaghan Innovation support is enabling it to develop technologies that will be able to be applied globally, and to a broad range of crops and environments.
Hailing from NZ also gives the business a competitive edge, says Fleetwood.
“Historically NZ has been a very innovative place to do agricultural business. Agritech is something that’s been ongoing here for more than 100 years, and as an agritech crop-protection company, we definitely benefit from that heritage.”
To find out more about how Callaghan Innovation supports CleanTech businesses, read our report NZ CleanTech for the World: The New Waste to Value, that specifically explores NZ’s Waste-to-Value commercial opportunities.
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Updated: 21 May 2021