Cool Planet replenishes soil with specially engineered bio carbon to increase crop yield and potentially keep our planet cool
All biochar is not created equal, says the sector’s most well-funded company
Hearing the word “biochar” might trigger thoughts of a non-polluting barbeque briquette. In fact, it’s a promising area of innovation still not well known but seemingly poised for greater attention. Shorthand for the use of charcoal as a soil amendment, biochar is hailed by its proponents as a non-chemical soil amendment and proven way to increase crop yields, reduce the use of water used for farming, and even a proven method of mitigating climate change.
Derived from the Greek word “bios” for life, and the abbreviation of charcoal (the carbonization of biomass or dead plant material), the use of biochar for farming is thought to date back to the pre-Columbian Amazonians. Archaeological evidence suggests that indigenous South American farmers many hundreds of years ago covered biomass with soil and then smoldered it in pits to create crude but highly potent fertilizer.
Today, biochar is produced using specialized equipment which burns plant materials such as wood and grasses in a low oxygen environment to produce a fine-grained residue. Among its beneficial uses are to enrich soil when applied to the ground or directly to the crop. Tests by scientists and ag companies have documented better crop yields, its ability to increase pH to treat acidic soil, and as a protection from various diseases. Although there are many companies marketing biochar-based soil enrichment products and the equipment necessary to produce it, the best funded company in the sector says they’ve developed a better mousetrap than competitors. Headquartered in Greenwood Village, Colorado, Cool Planet has raised close to $200 million based on their technology for improving biochar as a soil and crop treatment through a patent-protected process.
The firm’s signature product, Cool Terra® is leveraging the naturally-occurring properties of biochar by improving on its well-studied efficacy as a soil amendment with further processing not previously practiced by other biochar producers. Due to the company’s in-house developed Engineered Biocarbon™ technology, biochar is rendered into a durable, porous, organic material which can reduce the amount of water needed to grow crops, help optimize any fertilizers used, and even help reduce CO2 (carbon dioxide) in the atmosphere through carbon sequestration.
Although still largely unproven by science and a controversial subject, the carbon sequestration action of biochar is thought to occur in a manner similar to the way photosynthesis in plants results in the absorption of carbon dioxide. As every schoolchild knows from science class, by storing carbon, trees and plants play an important role in mitigating climate change. Cool Planet’s executives say a similar effect is in play when Cool Terra’s biochar is applied to the roots of plants. Once in the soil, the substance “pulls” carbon from the surrounding air and is responsible for “transferring it into the ground,” the company’s website states. This process has yet to be supported by independent, peer-reviewed studies.
Regardless whether biochar can help reduce CO2 globally, Cool Planet appears to be on more solid footing with claims related to crop yield and other benefits. Over the years company leadership says they have conducted more than 100 independent field trials by partnering with approximately 50 university and agricultural researchers. President and CEO Jim Loar says tests were conducted on over 40 different crops in several regions. Published results showed an average 12.3% improvement in marketable yield and a 3:1 grower return on the cost of the Cool Terra applications.
Key to the beneficial action of the product in the field, Mr. Loar states is its ability to improve the soil’s water-holding capacity. This results in less water loss through evaporation and increases the amount of water available to the roots of the plant. Additionally, Cool Terra is said to support the soil’s ability to hold positively charged ions (cationic) and reduce the negative charge density (anionic), both of which encourage soil stability, nutrient availability, and reduce acidity (pH). This is thought to create a more favorable environment for microbial development, putting a higher volume of nutrients in play for the crop to absorb. In keeping with the holistic approach of biochar in general, the substance also enriches the soil microbiome, encouraging the growth of bacteria and fungi essential for soil and plant health.
Investors have lined up to get a piece of the action in anticipation of the company’s Engineered Biocarbon technology can corner the agricultural market for biochar. Since 2006, Cool Planet’s leadership have convinced several highly regarded energy and technology companies, as well as prominent VC funds to ante up. An early round of undisclosed size was landed in 2012, led by Shea Ventures with the participation of BP Technology Ventures, General Electric, Google Ventures, ConocoPhillips, NRG, and North Bridge Venture Partners.
On March 31, 2014, Google Ventures, BP, General Electric, and ConocoPhillips all came back for a new round pegged at a staggering $100 million. A further $40 million has been added since 2017 along with funding from the U.S. Department of Agriculture to help underwrite the cost of a new processing plant at the Central Louisiana Regional Port.
Meanwhile, Cool Planet is not without its critics and naysayers. After two previous expected uses of its proprietary biochar apparently fizzled (biofuel, animal feed), articles have cropped up which question claims made by the company and its leadership. Although the largest funding round of the firm to date in 2014 involved two of the world’s most prominent oil and gas companies, purportedly to underwrite the cost of manufacturing biochar biofuel, online searches of progress grow cold after 2015. At the time of the investment by BP and ConocoPhillips, the goal was to produce 10,000,000 gallons of biofuel annually at the Louisiana facility. Plans to market biochar as feed for livestock and poultry and as a compost additive under the brand name Cool Fauna, are said to be still in place. However, it’s not yet available and the product page offers the vague statement that “early indications are promising”.
In a news release announcing the Google Ventures participation in the $100 million round, Bill Maris, Google Ventures’ first CEO and founder, stated that Cool Planet was “tackling some of the most important environmental issues of our time, and the company’s success could change the way the world approaches sustainable energy”. Whether he was right that the company will remain the “kind of investment that we love at Google Ventures, because the vision is so big” remains to be seen.
Western Growers Unveils ‘AgTech Innovation Directory’ to Facilitate connections within Industry
Marketplace of agtech startups operated by farming association seeks to create transparency during period of intense growth
Few industries have garnered as much attention over the past few years from venture capitalists and private equity firms as agtech. Virtually unheard of just a half-decade ago, over the past few years there has been a bounty of capital poured into agtech startups and to underwrite mergers and acquisitions by existing companies. In 2018, there was a 43% increase over the year before, with $16.9 billion bet on 1,450 investments, with the U.S. accounting for 567 deals worth $7.9 billion, $5 billion of which went to California entities.
According to analysts covering the agricultural markets, there’s a good reason this sector of the economy is heating up. In part, because the planet itself is warming and climate change is forcing a wholesale re-thinking of the Earth’s food supply chain. A report from the United Nations is forecasting global population to reach 9.8 billion by 2050, up from an estimated 7.7 billion today.
The threats posed by drought, higher average temperatures, shifting weather patterns, and the migration of blights such as insects and plant diseases caused by pathogenic organisms moving to more northern regions, all could spell disaster in the form of lower crop yields or massive crop failures. Without drastic improvements in the amount of food we produce, its estimated only half of the world’s population will be adequately fed in the decades ahead.
With hundreds of new agtech companies launching annually, how does a family farm or industrial agricultural operations keep pace? Short of paying a visit to the local feed and seed store or asking your preferred ag products distributor, there hasn’t been an efficient and comprehensive way for growers to identify developers of breakthroughs which could be put to immediate use in the field.
Until now, that is. This past month, Western Growers, debuted an online database listing startups offering new approaches in automation, data management, safer, more effective herbicides and fertilizers, and other innovations. Currently the directory lists just 50 companies, but curators of the service expect to expand the database over time.
Headquartered in Irvine, Calif. and with a history dating back to 1926, Western Growers is a member-owned association representing farmers in Arizona, California, Colorado and New Mexico .
Explaining the motivation for bringing the directory online, Hank Giclas, Senior Vice President of Strategic Planning, Science and Technology at Western Growers said it’s a service to both their members and to the ag industry at large.
“As the agtech industry grows and the number of startups continues to increase, farm operators do not necessarily have the time to vet each startup to determine if a partnership is viable. The vision of Western Growers AgTech Innovation Directory is to streamline that process, saving farmers time and money by allowing them to easily search for the startup and technology that meets their most immediate needs.”
Available online at www.agtechpages.com, the directory is accessible to all, although membership to Western Growers and the Western Growers Center for Innovation & Technology is required to post comments and reviews.