‘Our vision is to solve the problem of all the stressed land across the globe,’ Dr Xuemei Germaine, CEO, MicroGen Biotech. 

Dr Germaine MicroGen Biotech

Dr Xuemei Germaine (left) founded MicroGen Biotech in 2012 as a spin-out from I.T. Carlow. MicroGen Biotech is currently the only company in the world providing tailored or site-specific microbial products for stressed and polluted arable land. This is vital for preventing land abandonment that leads to food shortages.

“The portion of contaminated arable land in China has an addressable market value of $48 billion.”

Farmers will be able to grow more fresh food on arable soil stressed by pollution, using MicroGen’s disruptive technology.

What problem are you solving?

We turn polluted land into arable land using a natural process. The Chinese Government had to move away from old soil remediation techniques such as washing or burning pollutants out of the ground, which was impractical at an economic and environmental level.  

“Twenty percent (or 65m hectares) of arable land in China is stressed by pollution, primarily from industry and wastewater contamination.”

Bioremediation as a word may sound too technical, but in layman’s terms, we use these naturally occurring microbes and bacteria, which eat away oil and heavy metals like cadmium or chromium. It’s a waste management technique, and we use site-specific, tailored bacteria to remove or neutralise pollutants such as these from contaminated soil.

It has become a vital clean-tech strategy. Especially when you consider that twenty percent (or 65m hectares) of arable land in China is stressed by pollution, primarily from industry and wastewater contamination.

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Why China and why now?

Commercially, China is a huge market. The portion of contaminated arable land there has an addressable market value of $48 billion. Last year this attracted Irish investors and match funding from Enterprise Ireland to the tune of €0.5m. A Chinese company also match funded this, as it understands the size of the market opportunity there.

There’s now also a growing middle class in China which is increasingly becoming concerned about air, soil and water quality and the effect on human health.

Under the new SOIL 10 Act, the Chinese Government has initiated a policy to financially incentivise companies to precisely prescribe microbes to alleviate contamination on problem sites and land. They researched abroad to find the best technology and to bring it back to China. 

removing oil from soil

Why start a business and why tackle this problem?

I always loved business and a lot my family have an entrepreneurial background. My brothers also happen to have their businesses. I am originally from China and have a lot of contacts there, and that is also why we chose it as our first export market.

My background is in researching how microbes and plants interact and how they are best for cleaning up environmental pollutants in contaminated soil. I had applied for Enterprise Ireland’s New Frontiers Programme and got six months there to develop my business idea.

Our big vision is to solve the problem of all the stressed land across the globe. We have the team, the technology, the skill and the proven results to attain sustainable profitability and at the same time achieve something worthwhile. That’s our mission and our value.

What is unique or disruptive about your approach?

MicroGen Biotech harnesses the microbes that are present in the soil and around plant roots, at half or sometimes only a third of the cost of chemical and physical methods.

For example, in a rice plantation, we can stop heavy metals getting into the plant or rice grain itself. At the same time, we have other bugs that protect the plants, making them grow better. 

“Venture capital is flooding into companies that are trying to use microbiome science to achieve breakthroughs in agriculture, clean-tech and other fields.”

That’s very, unique. So now, not only is the situation stabilised but the pollutant is removed and yield improved. We hit the two problems with the one solution

We used the Irish market as a test to prove results, and we have done the same with the China market, developing there over the last three years. We have an excellent brand in China and have set up agreements with many partners there. This unfolding situation provides us with the platform for our technology to become very disruptive.

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What are the global trends in agriculture and CleanTech?

Venture capital is flooding into companies that are trying to use microbiome science to achieve breakthroughs in agriculture, clean-tech and other fields.

Startups are researching plant microbiomes (micro-organisms that are present in and around plants) and how they can be of benefit to mainstream agriculture. To date in the US, Indigo Agriculture has raised over $146m in funding there. 

“We will still be an Irish company with our R&D based in Ireland. We will expand employment and scale up our business team and also address the European market and beyond.”

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Where do you see the company in five years?

We see ourselves as being the number one company in the world, recognised by the Chinese Government to provide microbial product for stressed arable land. That’s our vision, and it has a huge commercial, social and environmental value. We can achieve this as a result of our work there over the last three years, with our partners, pipelines, and proven results. 

However, we will still be an Irish company with our R&D based in Ireland. We will expand employment and scale up our business team and also address the European market and beyond. Our primary goal, however, is to focus intensely on this niche area, providing tailored and site-specific microbial products for arable land, stressed by pollution, to be the number one in that market and eventually across the globe.

Article by Brendan Byrne.

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