CXC-AG is proud to have been featured in the April 2023 Edition of Global Biocontrol & Biostimulants Newsletter — A DunhamTrimmer and New AG International Publication. Read CEO François Lamoureux’s interview below who discusses the regenerative ag ecosystem, the uniqueness of CXC-AG technology pipeline and his business insights from after many years of success in the music industry.
Building upon decades of research by Professor Donald L. Smith at McGill University on the plant microbiome and plant growth-promoting rhizobacteria, technology transfer upstart CXC has developed proprietary strains that produce signalling molecules which act as abiotic stress mitigators in plants with substantially greater activity than first-generation LCO products – at significantly lower use rates. This month, we connected with CXC co-founder and CEO François Lamoureux to learn more about the technology and his unique take on the biologicals industry.
It is interesting that your career started in the music industry as both an artist and producer. How did you get from there to the biologicals industry, and what experiences from music were you able to apply to the transition?
That is quite the story, actually. I am blessed to have been able to follow my passion for music and make a great living at it. I enjoyed writing music, and I figured out at a young age how to get paid for my work, receiving my first performance royalties for my compositions at age 13. In high school, I had my own band, but I was also very good at school, especially science. I was also strongly motivated by the fact if I were able to do the schoolwork quickly and get good grades, everyone would leave me alone and I could spend a lot of time playing guitar, writing music, and performing with my band!
The unintended consequence, of course, was that I was fast-tracking myself through school, and I decided to go to McGill University to study music at the age of 17. My band was getting traction and I realized I wanted to finish my degree as fast as I could so I could use my 20s to hit the road and tour the world playing my music. And that is exactly what I would end up doing. But in the meantime, I decided to take all my electives in science and ultimately accumulated enough science credits that I was able to teach High School science, which I did for a time at the age of 20 years before hitting the road with my band.
We had a good run. Then at 29, I retired from playing and focused on Producing, Recording, mixing music and directing music films. I started Fogo (https://fogo.tv/) with my brother and got the chance to work with many of my heroes growing up – from The Who, Rush, and Deep Purple to hundreds of other great artists like Harry Connick Jr., Willie Nelson, Keith Urban, Little Big Town, Slipknot, Branford Marsalis and Rihanna. I especially got to work with legendary guitarists such as Steve Vai, Joe Satriani, John Petrucci, Zakk Wylde, Ritchie Sambora, Pat Metheny, Peter Frampton and Buddy Guy among many others. I was even fortunate enough to work on projects that won a Grammy and a couple of Emmy Awards, to name a few.
The way that fits in with biologicals is that one day I was asked to mentor at McGill University through its Dobson Center for Entrepreneurship. I realized there was a fantastic opportunity to help with technology transfer since a lot of amazing technology was not making it from academia to commercialization, and when it did, I felt it could have been done better.
The most immediate connection between this path and my first career was that emerging technology is brought forth by an “inventor” just as new music is brought forth by a “composer.” That is the real link: the creator. Just as all great artists want the best outcome for their art, the same is true for inventors. Pete Townshend and Joe Satriani, for example, had reputations for being extremely demanding. It turns out that they were not difficult at all – provided one approached their artwork with passion and delivered excellence in the end. The same can be said for technology inventors.
With that in mind, I created CXC with two friends three years ago with the goal of catalysing university technology transfer, which is to say, investing in university-developed technology (starting with McGill University technology) focused on real-world problems with the goal of transferring it to industry. Today CXC has built 2 labs housing 12 employees as well as several contract workers specializing in various technology sectors all the way from skincare to quantum computing (www.cxcip.ca). By far, though, our biggest investment has been in biologicals.
As you may know, McGill is known internationally for its chemistry and biology programs – which include agriculture as well as ag economics. Knowing that, I asked the university who was the most prolific person in the McGill agriculture space, and they suggested I have a conversation with Professor Don Smith. Don had had some real success in biologicals space, specifically with LCOs (Lipochito-oligosaccharides) which were invented by Don and masterfully commercialized by Novozymes. It turns out that Don was, in effect, gently “hoarding” all of these AMAZING biological solutions backed by decades of research, but remained focused on research himself and was not interested in commercializing his work. I convinced him to let me and my team at CXC handle the commercialization.
That does not mean we are “technology flippers.” We have dedicated, full-time, scientific teams on the payroll for all the projects we invest in including, but also beyond, agriculture. In the case of the biologicals segment, Dr. Fazli Mabood is our Head of Plant Science and he and his team have added a lot of value to the technologies. The result is that we have a ready-to-go portfolio of biological solutions with proven results – from superior signalling compounds, such as our Abio™ biostimulant, to biocontrols that feature strong efficacy against Tomato Canker and Potato Scab, for example.
Before we dive deeper into Abio, what are some of the most important things you have learned about the biological products industry over the course of your journey?
Certainly, I have learned a LOT. But if I had to choose just one thing, it would be that the biologicals business segment can be described succinctly as a “Build, Borrow or Buy” segment.
Let’s be honest, here. There has been a tendency to modify the generally accepted definition of the term “biologicals” which I believe is directly proportional to our innate desire to jump on the buzzword bandwagon. By “biologicals”, you and I are referring to so-called “inputs” and not peripheral things like precision agriculture or smart agriculture or other subsets of agriculture disguised as “biologicals” so as to check a box on some VC’s list of investment requirements.
In my view, the brutal reality about true agriculture (farming) is that unlike Artificial Intelligence or Quantum Computing or similar technologies, one cannot simply make up development time by throwing piles of money at a problem. Buying more computers and hiring more people in an effort to catch up to the competition does not apply to agricultural inputs. The simple reason is that rain falls in real-time: you must wait until the crops you are testing, grow. In the biological development space, this reality is even more brutal because within a tablespoon of soil, you have something like 50 billion organisms. Where do you start? Can you even “own” what can be found in that tablespoon? Which bugs are the good ones? What compounds do they produce, what do they do, and how do I know they will work in the field? You don’t know. And it takes lots of skill to get the answers. It takes a lot of time. It takes a lot of money. It is a huge risk. And so, apart from Big Ag, it is extremely difficult to properly develop true biological solutions all the way from discovery to proven usability in the field.
The simple reason is that rain falls in real-time: you must wait until the crops you are testing, grow. In the biological development space, this reality is even more brutal because within a tablespoon of soil, you have something like 50 billion organisms. […] You don’t know. And it takes lots of skill to get the answers. It takes a lot of time. It takes a lot of money. It is a huge risk. And so, apart from Big Ag, it is extremely difficult to properly develop true biological solutions all the way from discovery to proven usability in the field.
There are “start-up” companies out there that have raised Series H (!!!) and hundreds of millions of dollars and flaunt that they have tens of thousands of strains in their library. But, having your -80° freezer full of strains does not mean you will have a product. It can take 10 years to get from bioprospecting to having isolated compounds from the microbes and then having proven efficacy in the field. That is the hardest part: actually screening, isolating, and purifying the compounds. That is where most endeavors fail. In pharma, you start off with 10,000 molecules and only one of them makes it to FDA approval as a drug – and that process takes 10 years. It is the same in the biological space: you start looking in the soil and around 10 years later you may have a product ready to go. Or not.
If you are Big Ag, this makes you quite happy because you have the wherewithal – both scientifically and financially – to devote more than a decade to developing robust and functional biological solutions emanating from Plant Growth Promoting Rhizobacteria (PGPRs), for example. So, you can “BUILD.” This is a huge barrier to entry for others, however.
So, what if you don’t have the resources of Big Ag? Well, you can still develop your own biological solution (you’re still allowed to try to be lucky), but the question becomes WHEN do you (or did you) start? Remember, the biologicals game is being played out now. That means if you have something ready to go to market now, you must have started developing it 10 years ago! That’s another parallel to the music business: if you are trying to copy what is popular now, you are already too late.
But there is hope: because you can still “BORROW” (license) or “BUY” (acquire) your way into the biologicals space.
That is the premise of what we do at CXC. We can help fast-track technologies to the front of the line and enable companies to be competitive today with best-in-class, ready-to-go solutions. That is why we feel so great about ensuring Don Smith’s legacy. Don has been working on signalling compounds and other biologicals for over 30 years dating back to his ground-breaking work on flavonoids, which in turn led him to discover that genistein could trigger a gene in a Bradyrhizobium japonicum to produce Lipochito-oligosaccharides (LCOs). As a result, CXC has a biological portfolio already built upon decades of diligent, scientific research and proof that very few builders could afford to accumulate in-house.
Tell us about the research behind Abio. Why has it taken more than 20 years for the technology to get to this stage of commercialization?
Abio is the trade name for what is scientifically known as Thuricin 17 and Bacillin 20. It started in 1999 with a soybean nodule that Don Smith found on the McGill University Macdonald campus farm. In the nodule, he discovered a Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) right beside a Bradyrhizobium japonicum (Bj).
The reason it has taken more than 20 years for the Abio technology to get to commercialization is two-fold. Firstly, as we discussed earlier, even collecting promising strains you can claim ownership to is difficult enough. And only then does the truly back-breaking (and budget-breaking) work start, which is screening, isolating, and purifying the compounds that a given organism produces – then verifying their efficacy at the field level. Fortunately for us, Don and his students successfully accomplished this many times, proving efficacy in the field, year after year, decade after decade.
The second reason it took so long, as I mentioned before, is that Don was not interested in commercialization. Instead, he was genuinely interested in research and using his unique Bt strain and Thuricin 17 signalling compound as a research platform to produce cohort after cohort of PhD students – students that have since become experts in the field of microbe-to-plant signalling. In fact, you’d be hard-pressed to find any other biological solution that has been studied more. I’d challenge anyone to Google Thuricin 17, look at the peer-reviewed studies and papers as well as all the published data, and point to another biological solution with as much pedigree.
One last point I’d make is that a lot of scientists do not understand farmers. Some start-ups have one good planting season and try to extrapolate future value or imply consistently reproducible results, but agriculture does not work that way. Farmers know that you need years and years of data because no product has a 100%-win rate. Don is a son of a farmer and grew up on a farm. He understands that and has always wanted to help farmers succeed. That is why he has devoted his life to biologicals.
How would you summarize what differentiates Abio from other products in the space?
In the end, it is all about de-risking. And over the course of these last 23 years, Abio has been de-risked more than any other PGPR biostimulant. It truly mitigates abiotic stress in monocots, dicots, C3 and C4 as well as mitigating the effects of herbicide and pesticide applications. It also has clear bacteriocin capabilities. It is extremely stable and can be boiled and still be effective. It can be applied as a seed coating and or foliar spray straight in the tank mix without any further special handling or dedicated spraying.
Another important aspect of Abio relates to the IP protection inherent to it. Because Abio is a metabolite, if you don’t possess the organism, you cannot produce the compound. In so far as new precision agriculture goes and genetics and other omics technology being a threat to Abio, I can tell you that we hired the best of the best in proteomics and over these last many years and no-one can figure out the way the protein is folded. They can’t figure out the disulfide bridges. In so far as finding the exact Bt strain that we have and hoping that the secondary compounds they produce yields another Abio-type product, all we can say is “Good Luck.’ You can’t patent an organism (not easily, anyway), and Don has the propriety method of isolating compounds. Without a control, you would be spending a long time on your HPLC machine. In our lab right now, we can produce, without much effort, 26 million acres worth of soybean seed coating with a purity of over 95%. We have that in stock right now. With little effort, we could increase this by 10x.
We also do not know of any other biostimulant that can be used in lieu of LCOs in formulations. LCOs are wonderfully effective. But Abio is much easier to produce than LCOs while working at even lower concentrations than LCOs: Abio works at concentrations of at 10-11 and 10-13 and gets the plant’s defenses up before the stress event occurs. The quicker you get out of the ground, you win. The yield increases are real. The science is real. The decades of work on it are real.
Given your unique outlook and journey, what advice would you give to entrepreneurs or inventors that want to bring a new technology to this space but aren’t sure where to start or who to talk to? We’ve heard you refer to the “Van Halen Syndrome” in this regard. What do you mean by that?
This is another music business reference but I think, a really pertinent one. It comes down to what I refer to as “purity of intent.”
I am 53 years old and started playing guitar when I was 10, back in 1980. I really loved playing guitar just for the sake of playing guitar and got to be rather good – pretty quickly – for whatever reason. Then MTV arrived and suddenly all my friends saw Eddie Van Halen playing guitar – and the flocks of adoring fans (many of them female) that surrounded the band. So, of course, they ALL wanted to play guitar like Eddie Van Halen in order to get the girls. What they quickly realized, however, is that it was suspiciously difficult to play guitar like Eddie Van Halen! Eddie just made it look easy.
Fast forward to today, and the kids don’t really want to be Eddie Van Halen anymore. Most are more interested in becoming Elon Musk or Steve Jobs. They see the amount of money those types of guys make and want to be part of that “entrepreneurial” culture as a result. Enter the Van Halen Syndrome, and they find out it is suspiciously difficult to become Elon Musk or Steve Jobs. But why is that? I believe it is because Elon Musk and Steve Jobs did not start out with the goal of making billions of dollars as their main purpose. Instead, they were truly passionate about technology. They worked at their craft out of the purity of intent.
How does this apply to agriculture? I went to the World Ag Conference in San Francisco last month and I was forced to realize that the Silicon Valley start-up culture has impregnated the agriculture world more than I had imagined. This is not necessarily a bad thing – don’t get me wrong. But I kept hearing things like “Agriculture is ripe for disruption” or “there is so much opportunity here because farming is so antiquated.” I don’t pretend to have all the answers or a crystal ball, and I bet most of your readers don’t either. All I can say is – if there’s one thing I do not want to “disrupt,” it is what is currently feeding the planet.
I was forced to realize that the Silicon Valley start-up culture has impregnated the agriculture world more than I had imagined. This is not necessarily a bad thing – don’t get me wrong. But I kept hearing things like “Agriculture is ripe for disruption” or “there is so much opportunity here because farming is so antiquated.” I don’t pretend to have all the answers or a crystal ball, and I bet most of your readers don’t either. All I can say is – if there’s one thing I do not want to “disrupt,” it is what is currently feeding the planet.
And so advice-wise, I would tell people with a true passion for their technology that they need to be able to spot the Eddie Van Halen fakers out there and find the people that wanted to play guitar for the right reasons. We need to pick out the people that are excited about bringing great solutions to the world, and not the ones looking to build personal empires and emulate some off-base image of Elon Musk or Steve Jobs. In all our investments at CXC, we are wary of the Eddie Van Halen Syndrome. We are in the Don Smith business: an inventor that epitomizes what “purity of intent” really means.
If you had told me in high school that I would produce two film projects for Rush (R30 and Snakes& Arrows) and be their head of archives for almost 20 years, or work on Pete Townshend’s Lifehouse project (the music behind Who’s Next) or win a Grammy, I never would have believed you. So, how did I do it? I did it by running out into highway traffic and risking everything while at the same time striving to be a good person.
“Purity of intent means you have to have guts, but you also have to be honest and truthful. You have to have guts because, believe me, there will be incalculable consequences to getting out into the traffic. On the other hand, if you stay in your basement practicing your guitar all day long and don’t play out in the world: nothing will happen. You must get out there. And if you do get out there and try your best, you will be astounded as to where you will end up.“
You will most likely not end up where you planned (that rarely happens), but I think you will be amazed by just how great the place where you end up can be if you give it your all with purity of intent. Don’t shoot for the moon – aim for the stars. Aim as high as you can and outwork everyone. Pretty simple.