AgriBusiness Global Report: How a French Startup Is Taking on Resistant Weeds

AgriBusiness Global Senior Editor Jackie Pucci hosts the AgriBusiness Global Report, a 10-minute show bringing you interviews with executives and experts working in the agrochemical, biological, ag tech, and plant health industries. In this episode, Pucci interviews Thomas Laurent, Co-Founder and Chief Executive Officer of Micropep, which started in 2016 in Toulouse, France. Micropep is an innovative plant biotechnology company developing the next generation of biological crop protection solutions based on the potential of micropeptides to take on resistant weeds. 

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ABG: Just to start, why micropeptides?

TL: I think that you know the job of farming today is really tough. If you look at the drivers being what’s happening in this industry, farmers are losing tools faster than they are being replaced. There are big trends because of resistance, on one hand, the control competition solutions are less and less effective because of resistance. There is strong regulatory pressure as well. You have more and more compounds that are banned. So, all in all, we are expecting farmers to do more things with less tools, and what is interesting for me, is the technological space that is coming into ag – the one with compounds like proteins, RNA, and peptides. Those compounds already exist in other industries like pharma, with lots of drugs that are based on those type of compounds. We see those technologies now coming into ag because cost of goods and because we know how to formulate them. Micropep is one of these companies evolving in that space. We specialize in very short proteins – micropeptides with a very unique mode of action, and I believe these ‘particles 2.0,’ as some people are saying, is the potential future for crop protection.

ABG: Can you tell us a little about the company – how did it get started, and how did you get your start?

TL: I co-founded the company in 2016 back in France. I teamed up with the two scientists that originated this micropeptide technology that we are developing. (Regarding) my personal background, I’m coming from business, strategy consulting, and I also had entrepreneurship experience and tech transfer. What I really loved about this project, when I met (Co-Founder and Scientific Advisor) Jean-Philippe Combier and (Chief Technical Officer) Mikael Courbot, is that we had a crossroads of things that are important to me: business, of course, but science. So I’m interested in discovering new things and understanding these pieces of biology and all that can have an impact. And just the third key aspect to me is impact. I have two daughters, 3 years old and 6 years old. I know they’re going to grow up in a world that is very different from the one I experienced myself. As a father, as well for me, it’s important to try working on something that I believe can have a meaningful impact on the planet and the future. I think agriculture is the best playground for that, to have the biggest impact on the planet. I think it’s at the center of all climate change issues, and the future of the work for me is realizing solutions for agriculture.

ABG: Micropep announced a collaboration with FMC in late 2022 to develop biological solutions. Can you tell me more about that partnership, and when and where we can expect the products that result from it?

TL: I’m really excited about this partnership – it’s great for a small company like ours to be able to partner with one of the big players in ag. It’s a research agreement. I think it’s worth noting, because it’s not that often that companies like FMC can trust new platforms, like the one we have developed and partnered early on in the product development cycle. We are combining our forces, leveraging the platform we have to find small peptides that could have an impact and control resistant weeds. So we’re going after important weeds that we can find in North America. We are going to work on the design and are combining forces with them on the screening test, and then when things are going to move forward, working on pollution formulation and the product together.

We’re at the very beginning of this partnership. So, for a commercial chemical it’s about 12 years of research and development (R&D) and like $200 million more of funding before you can start to see a new active in the market. Hopefully for protein peptides, which are part of biologicals, it’s faster but it still requires a bit of time. We can count on six to seven years of R&D, globally speaking, from idea to regulatory and so on. So, I’m very excited at the beginning of it, but hopefully we deliver exciting tools for farmers.

ABG: You mentioned resistant weeds as your (focus), because we usually hear about biologicals in the context of pests – insects and disease. Can you talk a little bit more about that space?

TL: Interestingly, when I started the company and talked with the founders, I asked, ok, what could be the platform of the micropeptides, and what could be done? So, we can go after disease, and actually, we have a project also on disease resistance, we could go after insects, but we could also impact plant growth, and we’ve got good selectivity. When I was looking at the tools available for farmers, it is very striking to see that comparing conventional chemistry and biologicals, you do have a lot of bioinsecticides, you do have several biofungicides, but you don’t have much bioherbicides.

My thinking was that if there’s a very small chance that this technology could have an impact on the herbicide market, we should take it and try working in that direction. So, this is what we’ve started from the from the very beginning of the company. We demonstrated we could selectively control plants, and that’s kind of the core results that we’re using for this partnership. So, for me, it’s very exciting. There’s a big need. We talk a lot about glyphosate here in the U.S. but also, of course, in Europe, and for me that’s where there is a big gap in the tools available for farmers.

ABG: Are you able to talk about the specific activity on resistant weeds like waterhemp and Palmer amaranth?

TL: The way we approach that in terms of mode of action, so first of all, we are looking at different mode of actions but with the same type of small peptides. So it’s just strains of 10 amino acid very short proteins. A core technology that we studied are small proteins that can regulate specific genes. The idea is to see if we can fine-tune the expression of genes that are involved in resistance mechanism to weaken resistant weeds or to kill them. And so that’s the first go-to mode of action that we that we are developing.

ABG: Great. What is your approach to gaining momentum on adoption of your solutions in row crops?

TL: I would say that there are at least four aspects, starting with first, efficacy. If you want to play in the game you need to have a product that is efficient, that’s the first thing. You need to have something that the farmer can afford, so that’s the cost of goods and economics. Then you need to be approved, so you have the right to sell, and then finally, you need to be able to make your product available so the farmers can use it when they want it. We’re still early in developments, so we’re refocusing our time on efficacy and cost, so that’s kind of the prerequisite.

So we’ve been running field trials on our disease control project. That’s where we focus most of our time – showing good efficacy in the field and also working hard on production of those new compounds. That was one of the key challenges to solve and with the price there. But then, of course, we started to work on the regulatory front so that we make sure that at some point, we will be set up to sell the product farmers. And then finally, we’re getting the last piece, which is a big one, which is market access. We’re at the same time talking to farmers, to generate demand and adoptions to get feedback and make sure that what we develop makes sense and also exploring conversations with distributors and other manufacturers to have the right network of partners. So, partnership is also going to be a critical piece of the company’s strategy. That’s also why we hired our Chief Business Officer Alexandre Frateschi, who joined us a few months ago to go in that direction.

ABG: So in the European Union (EU), you obviously have a more stringent regulatory environment than anywhere else, even with biologicals. Can you talk about how regulations play into your strategy and how you see that evolving in the EU?

TL: Regulatory is a core component in the type of industry where we work, the same with pharma, and we cannot just launch a drug or herbicide or fungicide just like that. You need to be approved, and it has a big impact on time to market. As a startup funded by a venture capital firm, you know the time to set up product is a critical aspect of companies’ funding. What’s interesting is that, for me, there’s this part here on one end, and the other one, which is market opportunity. This is where when you compare geographies, we have different dynamics. Typically it is going to be faster – regulatory is much easier in the United States (U.S.) and Latin America. So that’s why our first product is going to be launching in those markets. That’s why I’m here and so what our focus is, when we talk more specifically about fungicides, there’s a bigger market opportunity globally in Europe. Europe is a bigger fungicide market than the U.S.

But as you mentioned rightly, regulatory is going to take longer, so the priority for us, we are focusing on time in the U.S. and Latin America. That’s why our first product is going to be launched there. And, of course, we are keeping on working on the European side as well, trying to move the needle if we can, and make sure we have initiatives in common with other companies in the same space of protein peptides and RNA to try to educate the European commissions. But let’s say that is a longer bet.

ABG: In closing, what can we expect next from you, and what are you most excited about? 

TL: So, first off, we are going to release a communication about the field trials that we’ve conducted on our first biofungicide leads – we are very excited with the efficacy that we’ve seen in the field. Of course, that’s a great milestone that we checked. We are very excited also, with this expansion of the trials that we’re doing this year. We really solved last year, a few components on production. I talked about briefly, the cost of good, and I think for those technologies – proteins, RNA, peptides – that’s a critical aspect. So it’s very exciting with the progress we’ve made there, because now we have the ability to make enough components to scale or trials. I’m really excited to see those partnerships that I was referring to coming to fruition. So we are talking to different persons in industry, also from academics to distributors, and that’s a core part of the strategy of the company. So, we’re excited to go about that and hopefully, we will be sure to communicate more about partnerships in the near future.