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Friday, October 05, 2007

Biopesticide pioneer covers globe
Pam Marrone leads staff in finding natural solutions to big problems

Bob Krauter
Capital Press

Pam Marrone, founder and chief executive officer of Marrone Organic Innovations Inc., examines a microbe in her lab. Her company discovers, develops and markets natural products for pest management. DAVIS, Calif. - Pam Marrone is on the move. The founder and CEO of Marrone Organic Innovations sits in her new office in a Davis, Calif., business park where she is preparing lab and greenhouse space for the upstart biopesticide company.

Her business cards still have the old address of the current lab facility - "the garage" - a small warehouse several blocks away. Near her desk is a bicycle that she uses to commute to work, but she is moving even faster to make her mark in the biopesticide industry, where she has devoted 25 years of her career.

Marrone and her staff of 10 combine business and scientific expertise to help find natural solutions to some of the biggest problems facing organic and conventional farmers. She thrives on innovation and finding naturally occurring microorganisms from unique habitats around the world that offer control of pests, weeds and plant diseases.

"That's what we do best, and that's where there is a huge gap in the industry," She said. "There really needs to be someone who is a real innovator, and there really isn't anybody on the biopesticide side who has that innovation role, so we can really fill that."

Marrone started her career in biopesticides for St. Louis-based Monsanto in 1983, leading the insect biology group. It was there that she screened microbes for pesticidal properties, "which I fell in love with."

But when Monsanto decided to focus on plant biotechnology, Marrone left Monsanto in 1990 to help start Entotech Inc. in Davis for Danish company Novo Nordisk. In 1995, she founded Davis-based AgraQuest and served as its chief executive until she left in 2006 to start Marrone Organic Innovations, her third start-up.

"AgraQuest was shifting into late stage in licensing and not doing any discovery anymore, so we set up the screening part again and the innovation again," Marrone said. "We already have a full pipeline. We're talking about a speed startup here. Because this is my third time, I am not wasting any time."

Marrone's company has already licensed GreenMatch O, a non- selective, post-emergent weed killer that uses an extract from citrus. The product is manufactured by a Georgia company for sale in Oregon, Washington, Idaho and several other Western states. A label is pending in California.

By in-licensing biopesticides like GreenMatch O from small companies, universities and other sources, Marrone can speed the delivery of environmentally friendly biopesticides to the market.

Marrone Organic Innovations is exploring a biofungicide made from the extract of giant knotweed in China.

"It is fully tested all over, particularly for powdery mildew in grapes, but it has fairly broad spectrum, and we have taken that on, and we are getting the plant produced in China and extracted with our Chinese partner, who is very good," she said.

The company is also working on a natural, broad-spectrum pesticide made from an extract of Chinese herbs to kill sucking insects. An extract from a marine microorganism is being explored as a potentially new rice herbicide.

"That is very badly needed in the rice industry, both for conventional and organic, because there are very few products that you can use," Marrone said. "You can lose 50 percent of your yield in organic, so that's a very interesting product."

Marrone said the key for her company is being systematic in the search for beneficial microbes. She often travels to remote areas of the world to collect samples of soil and compost.

"Only 11 percent of pesticides are from natural sources, so people haven't looked on a systematic basis. I have been doing it for so long," Marrone said. "After screening hundreds and hundreds of thousands of microbes, I know the types of habitats and things you are looking for. We know where to look now so it is less a needle in a haystack."

Marrone said she pursues natural biopesticides that can work for organic farmers, but also ones that can be integrated into pest management programs for conventional farmers. What is the one natural product that biopesticide companies yearn to discover?

"I call it the organic Roundup. That's the Holy Grail, at least of ag," she said.

Mary-Ann Warmerdam, director of California's Department of Pesticide Regulation, said the direction of biopesticide firms like Marrone's are applauded. They fit in, she said, with Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's focus on green chemistry and reduced risk- management strategies.

"What she is doing and the materials that she is developing for the market fit in so nicely with that and also give California growers a broader suite of reduced-risk materials from which they can choose," Warmerdam said. "That's very exciting."

Marrone spends little time in the lab.

"I supervise science, but I am incompetent in the lab. Don't get me in there," she said with a laugh. "If I was in there, they would kick me out. At Monsanto, they recognized very quickly that I was supposed to be in management and leading people in a science-based business."

California editor Bob Krauter is based in Sacramento.

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