Agrene, which celebrated its second anniversary last summer, has positioned its business in two areas: the biological quality of soils and harvests and plant protection using alternative control methods, a sector where a huge demand is not being met. The business is set up at AgroNov, the agri-environmental technology park that is gradually growing on the outskirts of Dijon under the watchful eye of recent President Pierre Guez who is also the President of the Vitagora competitive cluster. The startup, which has already created 4 full-time jobs, is gradually building a company.
"It is quite exhilarating for us now. We have literally drawn up a full tank of estimates on topics that have great scientific interest for us," announced Claude Alabouvette, an early research retiree who is scientific advisor at Agrene that is managed by Christelle Cordier. Now the business has to wait and see whether its estimates (submitted to comparatively large companies) become definitive contracts. "We are very confident, at least for two or three of our offers," he added before incidentally mentioning that cash flow for the startup (the outcome of both researchers' determination) is one of its main problems, if not the number one problem. However, although the two may be more used to manipulations in the lab than to the twists and turns of accounting and management, they have learnt how to manage cash flow problems. For instance, the business founders only began to hire personnel when the first contracts were signed, thus ensuring that wages could be paid. "We're taking it step by step," confirmed Claude Alabouvette.
A Sound Array of Tools to Answer Companies' Questions
Today, different types of companies are turning toward Agrene. First, there are those that can be found on what Claude Alabouvette calls the 'black market', i.e. the market operating without approvals, based on word-of-mouth, a market where some firms may have up to a dozen sales reps. "However, there comes a time when some of them would like to access the official market. So, they must get approvals. This is where we come in and help them conduct studies that will allow them to file a marketing authorization application (MAA)," explained the Agrene Scientific Advisor.
Then, there are the companies that would like to diversify the germs they're working on, or even create a collection of strains. This work is right up the alley of the team at the Dijon based startup. However, they do it differently than what is usually done at most laboratories that live by the rule of systematic screening of molecular mechanisms. "At Agrene, we begin with a biological test that is closer to actual field conditions. In other words, if we are dealing with a microorganism that will be added to the soil, we do our screening with a plant that grows in the soil and that we confront with the pathogen." The next stage, which virtually no private company currently carries out, consists in identifying the strain at the molecular level as regulations require that the relevant strain be identifiable for the approval process. "The original feature of our approach is that we always begin with a manipulation very similar to what will be happen in the field," explained Claude Alabouvette.
Agrene has also been contacted by large companies in the phytosanitary sector. "They began taking a closer look at what we used to call alternative methods up until recently. However, these companies from the chemical industry do not have much experience in biology," reported the Dijon based researcher. Actually, large companies sometimes have problems answering the regulatory authorities' questions after an MAA has been filed. This is also a niche that Agrene would like to capture. Claude Alabouvette pointed out that, although the microorganisms that are submitted for approval have been known for a long time, most of them have not undergone modern characterization techniques, such as Scar markers, which correspond to unique sequences in a genome. "However, by amplifying the sequence using quantitative PCR, you get a unique tool that can track any strain in the environment," he underscored. Indeed, Agrene is emerging as an organization with solid scientific weaponry to meet the expectations of these companies whose contacts are usually only consultants who are admittedly experts in regulations, but who lack the requisite microbiological culture.