Stephen Ford is into mushrooms. He’s growing tiny fungal spores that kill off pests, boring through their skin and sucking out their insides. It sounds like something out of a science fiction film about to go horribly wrong, but for Ford, it’s oh-so-right.
One of my favourite things about writing for Idealog is that I get to meet people who have worked hard, risked their life savings and their sanity on their great idea, and appear to be right on the edge of becoming fabulously wealthy and successful. Stephen Ford, the superbrain behind Greentide, is just such a person.
If white flies tell scary stories to their children in the future, they will almost certainly feature Ford as Fungus the Bogeyman. And he would be a whole lot more terrifying than the one we tell our kids about. In fact, Hollywood aphids might just make a futuristic horror movie about him, starring Sigourney Weavil.
Because in the past few years Ford has spearheaded, sometimes single-handedly, the development of a range of pesticides based on tiny natural fungal spores. In the carefully controlled conditions of a modern greenhouse these spores bore through the skin of the target insect pest species, grow a network of root-like structures through their internal organs, and kill them within 48 hours by sucking out their insides.
In the lab, one of these spores is enough to kill a target insect. When used as a spray, millions upon millions are released.
According to Ford, these pesticides have absolutely no toxicity for mammals, including humans, or plants. They have been naturally occurring in the environment for billions of years and have specifically evolved to do over pest insects without any collateral damage to anything else. In fact the numbers of insects that prey on the pest species actually seem to increase as the product takes hold.
Greentide says you can spray this stuff over your plants while your staff are harvesting, and, since the fungi are incapable of activity at body temperature the worst thing that will happen to your people is they might get wet. Ford is so confident about all this that he eats some of his product off his own finger in one of the company’s promotional videos.
This is why representatives of some of the world’s largest chemical companies, including Dow, Monsanto, Dupont and Bayer, have recently been sighted in a small industrial unit in a backstreet of Pukekohe offering Ford cheques with lots of noughts attached. It’s also why some very serious business heads have jumped onboard with Greentide to make sure they, Ford and the New Zealand nation get what they deserve for Ford’s inventions.
Business heads such as Martin Riegel, who has just been announced as Greentide’s new CEO. He was previously chief operating officer and chief finance officer of Kiwi touchscreen wizards NextWindow. He helped steer that firm to a $40m a year turnover and to last year’s successful multi-million dollar sell-off to Canadian rivals Smart Technologies. Riegel-watchers reckon he has rustled up US$100 million in equity and debt from venture capital, strategic investors, banks and other sources over the course of his career.
Then there’s Greentide chairman John Judge. When not helping to mastermind the war on insect pests he juggles slots on the board of directors for Fletcher Building Ltd and the ANZ National Bank and is also the chairman of the Accident Compensation Corporation. Before that he was CEO for Ernst & Young for 13 years.
Clearly Ford has some serious moneymen believing in him, but it hasn’t always been this way, and it shows. When I stroll past the non-existent reception desk at Greentide HQ and walk right up behind the man himself hunched over his laptop, he immediately strikes me as someone equal parts surprised, on edge and enormously excited about the position he finds himself in. It’s as if he has spent a long time screaming into the wind and is still coming to terms with the fact that so many people are suddenly listening.
“I was always fascinated by fungi and disease,” he tells me, slightly disconcertingly. “And was a pretty good problem-solver. I am a Massey [University] graduate, and then became a plant pathologist. I spent quite a lot of time overseas solving problems for growers and came back to New Zealand and started working for horticultural merchants. You could probably describe me as Chemical Ali, because I sold a lot of chemistry for the companies that I was working for.”
But by about 1997 he was becoming increasingly concerned about the mounting evidence of two big problems with his chosen industry. Firstly, the insects were becoming resistant to the chemicals, and secondly some of these chemicals appear to be doing terrible things to our environment and to us.
According to the World Health Organisation, contrary to what we might imagine, between 1940 to 1984 crop loss increased from 7 percent to 13 percent, despite pesticide use increasing 12 times over. One of the reasons is that in a chemical assault about two in every 100 target beasties survive to munch another day. Over time this leads to pesticide tolerance, and then resistance, where your insect enemies are sucking up your pesticide like it’s L&P or using it to wash their mandibles.
The response that Ford was seeing in his clients was one of desperation: most of them were just upping the dose, which just accelerates the resistance problem. It also potentially increases the risks to human health and our environment. The latest research suggests that environmental exposures to chemicals may play a key role in the frequency and occurrence of a range of serious health problems.
So Ford started looking for alternatives, in an unusual, but startlingly direct way.
He placed a number of adverts in horticultural and grower magazines essentially saying: ‘Send me dead bugs.’ What he was looking for were critters that had died without being sprayed, and especially those that appeared to be covered in fungus.
“We got an unprecedented response,” he says. “ We must have got thousands and thousands of insects in the post and dropped off to us.”
He first set up in the back of his doctor father’s surgery, because it was the most sterile place he could find, and then converted a 1912 dairy shed into his own lab.
“We began learning how to grow these things and how to create commercial products out of them,” he says. “By 2004 we were basically ready to go to market, but I had run out of money and was rapidly going broke.”
A colleague stepped in and got the company into the now defunct Escalator service funded by New Zealand Trade and Enterprise. Its blend of advice and deal brokering, coupled with the strength of Ford’s ideas, netted the company $600,000 from a group of angel investors, who also brought with them a good dose of commercial savvy. The cash was the first money in the firm that hadn’t come out of Ford’s own pocket.
“My wife and I spent money we just didn’t have,” he remembers. “We took an awful risk. It was very difficult for us for a long period of time.”
The company released its first group of products, and they failed miserably.
“The whole experience was incredibly humbling,” says Ford. “We just released it too early.”
It took an unhappy two years of sucking it up and learning from their mistakes to get going again. The main thing they learned was this: if a New Zealand food grower sprays today, he wants to start seeing dead bad guys tomorrow. But Mother Nature tends to be a bit more subtle.
This is probably the point at which Greentide parted company with most of its direct competition. They owned the problem. Up until that point most of the hundreds if not thousands of companies around the world doing biologicals had resigned themselves to remaining highly specialised, giving their farmers a long list of instructions that had to be followed carefully for the products to work. The average food grower wasn’t satisfied with that, and neither was Ford.
“We hired consultants to talk to every single one of our customers,” he says. “We got a ‘warts and all’ response from them on what the growers wanted to see from us.”
They also took a closer look at the latest greenhouse environmental control systems. These contained the data that would tell the company about the conditions in which their fungi were doing the business, and when they were sleeping on the job. With that information they could change the advice on the label and the formulation of the products themselves, to ensure their tiny team was always on duty.
“One of the biggest problems with biologicals and one of the reasons they are not mainstream is that they require high humidity and they are no good in hostile climates,” says Ford. “And Mother Nature wants to pull an insect population back to balance rather than full control. We had to go through another formulation process to create a product that would give the grower what they expect: immediate control.”
They had it done by 2008, creating what they claim is the most state-of-the-art biological pesticide in the world, with lab data and commercial applications to back it up. In 2009 the new board swept in, bought everybody out except Ford and got down to serious business.
Where once Ford and his team would have just mailed you some product, Riegel will be overseeing the expansion of distribution deals with several large horticultural and agricultural merchants, as well as lawn and garden companies with links offshore. And the company is beginning to set up a US operation targeting its $40 billion dollar pesticide and fungicide market. Riegel will also be taking another look at those cheques, to see if there is anything tempting on offer.
Ford says: “Right now we have many options in front of us and we have got to make the right decision. We are seeing companies developing into $100 million businesses that don’t have a patch on our technology as far as we are concerned. The big multinationals are in acquisition mode; they are looking at buying up biological technology. We need to finish our science and complete all of our patents, which is months away rather than years, and once we are secure with all our IP we can go and have a bit more of a conversation with them.
“I know that the owners are very passionate about building an industry for New Zealand. We listen to John Key when he says we should be building a smarter economy. I just wish we could get the funding here, without having to seriously look at going offshore, because we can do it all here. The only reason we would go offshore is because there are cash incentives to do that. We could struggle to raise the capital here in New Zealand, whereas we can go overseas and not have a problem. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to know what the options are to get a return on our shareholders’ investment.”