Pam Marrone is the CEO and founder of Marrone Bio Innovations, a company offering bio-based pest management and plant health solutions that are effective, efficient, and environmentally responsible.
As the cannabis industry takes off, we’re seeing a continual and deliberate push away from the stigmatized days of old and towards the general acceptance of cannabis as just a plant — not a drug, but an agricultural commodity. We recently invited Pam for a Q&A session to talk about her company’s organic, non-toxic pesticide options, why these biopesticides are especially useful for cannabis growers, and more!
seonganjuk: What is your background and what prompted your pivot to the cannabis space?
Pam Marrone: I am a PhD entomologist and serial entrepreneur, having started and run three biopesticide companies (after starting my career at Monsanto discovering new ways to control pests). We were inundated with request for information and technical support for our products to control powdery mildew and mites on Cannabis. Our customer service line and our sales people’s cell phones were deluged with calls. The growers discovered by themselves that our product, Regalia is very good for Cannabis powdery mildew and that Grandevo and Venerate are good for mite control.
We did some background research and found out that pesticide residues can be a serious problem in Cannabis products. Because the EPA does not regulate Cannabis, it is left up to the states and so there is a patchwork of rules for pesticide use. We also found that many Cannabis growers do not have backgrounds in pest management so do not know how to choose and use pesticides. All of these things prompted us to start supporting the growers:
- Providing technical support for our products
- Setting up distribution
- Re-deploying a sales rep to become the Cannabis Support Specialist (to take all the calls going to our ag sales team)
- Getting our relevant products listed by all the medical and recreational states (in progress)
- Developing smaller package sizes (1 quart and 1 gallon down from 2.5 gallons)
- Listing on Amazon
How long did it take from the inception of Marrone Bio Innovations to the company’s final launch, and what kind of team did it take to get off the ground?
I left my previous company AgraQuest on March 31 and started MBI on April 1, 2006. In May I rented a lab, in late June, found a CFO and founding investors, in August raised seed financing, and the following March closed on more than $3 million Series A. We licensed in technology while our own discovery R&D was screening for microbes and extracts of plants we could turn into biopesticide products. We launched the first version of our first product, an extract of knotweed, Regalia, in 2009. In 2016/17 we were overwhelmed with the inquiries from Cannabis growers so that is when we started focusing on it.
How many employees work at MBI and what kind of traits do you look for when hiring new team members?
We have 100 employees. This is a very good question because hiring people who ultimately are counter to the values and culture we want can be very harmful and disruptive to the company. We need employees who truly believe in biologicals as mainstream products for sustainable ag systems. Employees need to be creative/innovative, agile, resilient, of high integrity and hard-working “hunters.”
What are the biggest advantages of using your products vs. more mainstream insecticides, fungicides, etc?
Our products leave no chemical residues and they can be used right up until harvest with shorter re-entry times after spraying, due to their safety. Our products can work as well as/or better than chemicals, when applied correctly with an understanding of their unique modes of action compared to chemicals.
What is the most challenging experience and the most rewarding experience you have had in the cannabis space, so far?
The tremendous feedback we get from growers about the performance of our products for powdery mildew (Regalia) and for mites (Grandevo and Venerate). Making the crop safer for consumers, without any chemical residues. Challenging: there are many growers who are new to growing plants and controlling pests and diseases so their level of technical knowledge can be quite low. So, they try bizarre cocktails of snake oils that would never be allowed in EPA-regulated agriculture.
What sort of product training/technical support do you offer growers who might not be familiar with biopesticides, and how much training would be required for someone with zero experience?
We have a technical support team (1 MS and 2 PhD specialists) who provide the education and training for growers and their advisors for both food crops and Cannabis. For someone with no experience the key is to emphasize to read and follow the label instructions. There is a lot of information on the label and it needs to be followed. Biopesticides are easier to learn in some sense if you are starting from scratch because they have a high degree of safety to the applicator. Our team spends time helping them understand the mode of action of our products so they get the best results. For example, Grandevo and Venerate are not “knockdown” products – they don’t kill quickly (but they stop pest feeding right away) so it is important to understand it may take 7 days to see the full effect of the product on the mites.
What’s the feedback from cannabis growers been like? Could you share a particularly favorite reaction by a grower?
We hear that Regalia has become their standard for powdery mildew control. Used preventively before the mildew symptoms show up, growers say they have “clean plants.”
As for a favorite reaction, I love the one who told me he injects Regalia into the hydroponic system every week and he found that Regalia increased the root mass considerably and he has much healthier plants. We knew that Regalia had this effect on root growth but applied to Cannabis in hydroponics was new to us.
As an ancillary company to the cannabis space, which other agricultural or similarly niche industries do you deserve?
We focus on high value fruit, nut and vegetable crops and we just launched our first product into turf. We also note that our products are popular with tobacco growers, especially the fast growing organic tobacco segment.
Where do you see Marrone Bio Innovations in 5 years — and how about 10 years from now?
Our goal is to become the largest biopesticide company (in revenues) and continue to be the innovation leader with effective science-based products across the full range of grower needs. We are expanding internationally so in 5 years we will be more diversified than we are now where 90% of our revenues are in the USA. We expect to enter the herbicide segment in a couple of years, which is the largest pesticide market (40% of the $50 billion pesticide market). Organic growers have few effective solutions for weed control and conventional growers are faced with ever increasing weed resistance to popular chemicals like Roundup/glyphosate.
What kind of advice could you offer to someone who is eyeing the ancillary cannabis space?
It is an area for growth but it is evolving as new states enter and come up with new rules, so stay nimble.
Thank you, Pam, for taking the time to answer our questions! To learn more about Marrone Bio Innovations, visit the company website at MarroneBioInnovations.com.