Tiny Quebec company turns big agriculture’s head with ‘magic potion’ that makes crops boom
July 24th, 2015
Damon van der Linde
Photo Credit: Damon Van der Linde/National Post
MONTREAL — When Ananda Lynn Fitzsimmons decided to start a business selling her home-brewed garden product in Lac-Brome, Que., she didn’t imagine that just eight years later she would be working with some of the biggest names in North American commercial agriculture.
“When I started doing this, microbial solutions were fairy dust,” Fitzsimmons said.
In June, Fitzsimmons and Inocucor co-founder Margaret Bywater-Ekegärd cut the ribbon to open their new headquarters and laboratory in Montreal’s Technoparc, backed by a team who have led agricultural giants including Monsanto and Bayer CropScience.
“It’s unbelievable. Things have changed so much in the past few years,” Fitzsimmons said.
“Part of me couldn’t really imagine that the two of us could do something that could get this big, but now it looks like maybe we can.”
Inocucor was founded in 2007 after Fitzsimmons took an entrepreneurship course and was paired up with Bywater-Ekegärd, a business coach and medical doctor who worked in the pharmaceutical industry before seeking a quieter life in small-town southern Quebec.
When she heard Fitzsimmons’ idea, she decided it was time to get back into business. “A lot of people in the beginning were looking at these two grey-haired old ladies. They didn’t know us,” Bywater-Ekegärd said. “If we put our mind to it, there’s nobody who’s going to stop us.”
Inocucor’s first product, Garden Solution, is a “biological accelerator” fermentation that is made in a similar way to wine and creates communities of beneficial organisms in the soil.
Bywater-Ekegärd and Fitzsimmons began production out of their homes before they caught the attention of Montreal-based venture capital firm Cycle Capital Management, which focuses on the clean-tech sector. Cycle Capital began financing Inocucor in 2012.
In a 2014 trial at South Carolina’s Clemson University, broccoli plants treated with Inocucor out-yielded untreated broccoli by 38 per cent, and today the company is managing nearly 100 field demonstrations for tomatoes, strawberries, watermelons, broccoli and other high-value produce.
“When I first started I thought maybe I was just going to brew something and sell it to my neighbours,” Fitzsimmons said. “People assume I’m a microbiologist as the founder of this company and I say ‘actually no, I’m a witch because I like to make magic potions and I have all my life.’ ”
“I’m a witch because I like to make magic potions and I have all my life”
Cycle Capital also helped Inocucor find a professional chief executive — Donald R. Marvin, who is best known for co-founding Orchid BioSciences, the largest private DNA testing firm in the world. Marvin moved from Colorado to head the company. He said memories of growing up near his grandfather’s farm in northeast Ohio inspired him to return to the agricultural industry. “All these years later I’ve sort of come full circle,” Marvin said, adding “I’m back developing great products for farmers and growers out there to help feed the world.”
Inocucor recently launched a $15-million equity financing, which it expects to complete in the second half of 2015. The company’s shareholders now include Desjardins-Innovatech, Inocucor’s employees and a small group of angel investors.
There are currently 22 employees, but Marvin expects that number to grow to more than 100 in the next two years.
The company’s board has also attracted directors from some of the biggest agricultural producers in North America. “It’s the last frontier looking at the microbiome of the soil and the new technologies that are coming out of it to increase yields,” said board member Jim Bloom, CEO of Bayer CropScience North America. “This is a startup company that has some spectacular yield potential.”
While the company is not yet turning a profit, Marvin said it could be worth up to $400 million in the coming years. “It’s not about the revenue per se that creates value in this company, it’s the underlying intellectual property,” he said.
The company will make acquisitions in the near future to bring new products and technology into its lineup, Marvin said. “You could expect to see something in the next couple months,” he noted.
Inocucor could be putting itself in line to compete with the world’s major agricultural companies such as Monsanto, but the company said having patented products on the market while others are still in research and development make strategic partnerships more likely.
“I think Inocucor is ahead of everybody in the field,” said Ted Crosbie, a former Monstanto executive who sits on Inocucor’s board. “I don’t think it has many competitors.”