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Interview with Dr. Minshad A. Ansari, CEO of Bionema:

"Many startups are held back from bringing their products to market due to regulatory hurdles."

The renowned scientist and serial innovator in the bioprotection field describes the most relevant developments in this segment, as well as the need to resolve the regulatory bottlenecks that complicate the speed with which these come to market.  

Felipe Aldunate M. 

Regulatory issues are proving to be a brake on biological innovation, he says, and the next step for this sector must move away from the field and towards public health: "the places where people live, store or prepare food should be free of toxic chemicals that could harm them". This is the view of Dr. Minshad Ansari, founder and CEO of the British firm Bionema. Founded at Swansea University, the company focuses on research and development of microbial formulations for crop protection against different types of pests and pests.  Several of these have reached the market, and have even been acquired by large companies, such as Syngenta, consolidating its focus on serial innovation. However, Ansari says that innovation in this area is not advancing fast enough in the face of the challenges ahead. The European Union wants to eliminate the use of 505 pesticides by 2030, which require biological substitutes. "A lot of new companies are held back from bringing their products to market because of regulatory hurdles. Time and cost, especially," he says. "We've had a lot of conversations with people who say, 'Oh, yes, we have a solution for that... Or this bacterium works against that... but no; it's too expensive to get it through regulation, so we're not going to develop it.'"  That's why the scientist has promoted the World BioProtection Forum, so as to encourage European regulators to encourage regulations that favor development. Ansari talks about this, England's role in global regulation and his initiatives in Latin America in the following interview.

-Let's start with a general question. What are the most important trends in the bioprotection field in the world?

"Probably the most important trend in recent years has been the investment in new formulation technologies that are enabling easier application of bioprotection products using conventional farming equipment, and which enable greater coverage and persistence on the crops we are trying to protect. Examples include ‘physical’ technologies such as microencapsulation, as well as ‘chemical’ technologies such as green adjuvants. Remember that 5 years ago it was frequently difficult to find adjuvants that were not harmful to the microbials or macrobials being applied.

At Bionema, we have developed patented innovative formulation technologies that enable us and our collaborators to produce biopesticides that have easy distribution (ambient temperature); high efficacy; reduced number of required treatments (reducing costs); optimised for available application methods; potential for wider biocontrol applications of plant fungal diseases. For example, our patented microencapsulation formulation technology IncapsuleX™ increases efficacy by delivering biopesticides in a microcapsule to the insect cuticle – enhancing adhesion and increasing persistence on plant surfaces for improved pest and disease control."

-And you, personally, what do you consider to be the most interesting stream of innovation?

"In particular, I think it is exciting that we are seeing more companies in bioprotection looking for solutions that can be applied in broadacre crops. Bioprotection has always been seen as a solution for controlled environments like glasshouses, where temperature, humidity and other conditions can be controlled to suit the biological agent concerned. Now, as our skill in formulating these products has advanced, it means we can finally provide solutions in non-controlled environments, opening the potential for their application in broadacre crops. This will allow much broader use of bioprotection products, allowing them to fill the gaps left by an increasing number of banned chemical pesticides, and enabling significant growth in the bioprotection sector. The European Commission wants to reduce the use of chemical pesticides in the EU by 50% over the next decade, in a benchmark established by the new Farm to Fork and Biodiversity strategy which means more and more new bioprotectants (also known as biopesticides) must developed and commercialised."

-Do you think that the regulations are helping the development of innovation in this sector?

"Regulations have been a problem for the bioprotection sector since the beginning because the regulators of the time did not understand that these are biological – not chemical – agents, and so they just applied the same regulations for chemicals to these bioprotection products. It seems obvious now that regulating a biological product in the same way that you regulate a toxic chemical that is specifically designed to kill biological species is not a sensible approach, but when these products were novel in the 1980s, the regulators didn’t really understand that. Now, after about 40 years of discussion, I think the message is getting through, and regulators are starting to understand that you can’t hold biologicals to the same regulatory tests as toxic chemicals. There are a lot of companies and trade organisations campaigning for changes all over the world, but Bionema is currently supporting the World BioProtection Forum’s campaign for change in the UK. The WBF is already working directly with the decision makers at Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, UK (DEFRA) as they revise their regulations for bioprotection products post-Brexit, and DEFRA genuinely seems open to listening to the needs of the industry."

It is our hope (and the hope of many in industry!) that if an agile and flexible post-Brexit DEFRA can create a regulatory framework that works for industry, while providing a robust risk assessment process that works for government, that system can be used as a credible and robust example for other countries seeking answers to this same problem, and should lead to similar changes elsewhere, such as in the EU.


-As you have pointed out, the European Union is going to stop using many chemical pesticides in a few years. Will innovation in the organic sector be able to move fast enough to replace them without impacting productivity?

No, but general awareness of biopesticide is increasing and the EU is banning 505 pesticides by 2030 and may continue due to the negative impact of pesticides on humans and the environment. "The problem is that a lot of start-ups and SMEs are put off taking their products to market because of the regulatory hurdles – time and cost, especially – and we have had too many discussions with people who say, “Oh yes, we have a solution for that… this bacterium works against it… but no, it’s too expensive to get it through regulations so we’re not going to develop it.”

Perhaps the answer is that innovation could be fast enough, but we need to develop a regulatory framework that nurtures innovation and encourages the start-ups and SMEs that dominate the bioprotection sector to take their innovations through that system and get them to market. It is our greatest hope that the UK government will at last show the world that this can be achieved, and that they will provide a sensible framework when they update the UK regulations later this year."

-Usted ha mencionado que las soluciones botánicas no deben ser tratadas como otros bioinsumos basados en microbios o bacterias. ¿Puede explicarlo?

"Current EU and UK regulatory are complicated and not fit for bioprotectants registration, however, when the regulatory framework is revised, a difference between pure biological agents (microbials and macrobials) and naturally plant extracts (semio-chemicals, for example) will need to be drawn. Biological agents need to be assessed by biologicals and should be subject to biological assessments – not chemical ones. However, the regulations for all bioprotection agents need to be simplified and sped up, if they are to provide the solutions that the world needs."

-In the case of Bionema, you have succeeded in bringing several biological solutions to the market. What are the key factors to become a serial innovator in this field?

Innovative solutions based on microbial control agents for the control of crop. Our business model is to license technology to multinationals. Our most successful innovation to date were NemaTrident, Nemaspreader and UniSpore®, which were acquired by Syngenta earlier this year.

Read the article "Syngenta acquires two bioinsecticides from UK-based Bionema".

The original idea came about a long way back. Previously I was an academic working across India, Belgium, and the UK. After 2005 I was working at Swansea University, UK. I was visiting growers and farmers and always being asked ‘How can we control pests and diseases better without chemicals?’. It was definitely inspiring, making me think, ‘Can we have something non¬toxic and better than the chemical pesticides which they are using?’. I developed my thinking around the idea but didn’t really have the resources to take it to where I wanted. I set up Bionema in 2012 spinout from Swansea University. The focus of Bionema’s research was the development and commercialisation of naturally occurring microorganisms for crop protection against pests and diseases that would reduce the use of synthetic pesticides, enhance food security, and increase crop yields. The company established its headquarters at the Institute of Life Science at Swansea University in the UK.


Originally from India, Dr. Ansari's studies began at Aligarh Muslim University, where he obtained his MSc in Agricultural Nematology. He then moved to Belgium where he obtained a further Master of Sciences at the renowned Ghent University. At the same university he obtained his PhD, in 2004, after studying the biological control of June beetle with nematodes and entomopathogenic fungi. A year later, he moved to Swansea, where he joined the research team of this university. He created Bionema in 2012 under the wing of the university, a firm that had its first major milestone in 2017, when he made the discovery that led to the development of NemaTrident®, a patented three-component solution. Then, in 2018, he conceptualized a microencapsulation formulation delivery system in 2018 for foliar challenges. Shortly thereafter, Dr. Ansari raised £0.70 million in equity investment and received £1.1 million in grants from Innovate UK and the Welsh Government, which was used for the development and commercialization of UniSpore®G, a unique fungal bioinsecticide for soft fruit weevil control.

Innovation in biopesticide formulations is a core objective for Bionema, enabling the company to commercialise multiple product lines and to generate a pipeline of advanced and early-stage products that include beneficial nematicides, bioinsecticides, compatible surfactants and delivery platforms. Bionema has also developed a robust patent portfolio and collected a library of more than hundred commercially viable microorganisms for pipeline candidates.

-Can a company like Bionema that emerges from a university project be global or will it always depend on big players like Syngenta?

"Of course, it can. Even the companies we view as giants today had to start somewhere! If you look at Koppert which started in the Netherland, the company has grown to become a multinational with an annual turnover >€200 million and 1,200 employees in 26 countries, including markets such as China, Brazil, the United States, and Russia – it can be done, if you have the right funding and resources. However, in the current economic and business climate, I think that small companies like Bionema are most likely to grow to reach global status through mergers and acquisitions – it is difficult in the modern world to grow organically quickly enough to compete with the giants out there! Meanwhile, we are delighted to continue collaborating with companies such as Syngenta, and we believe that collaboration between small and large companies can enable both to bring their strengths to productive working relationships that will advance the bioprotection sector and provide the world with more, better BioSolutions, more quickly."

-What is your next development goal?

"Our next target is the area of public health. We believe this is a critical area that needs biosecurity: the places where people live, store or prepare food should be free of toxic chemicals that could harm them. This is an obvious market for biosecurity, but it doesn't seem to be one that many people are paying attention to yet. Right now we are working on mosquito control, both in their larval and adult stages, and we have made some interesting progress. Rather than spraying with toxic chemicals, we think it's better to manage human vectors like mosquitoes through IPM approaches that could draw on things like soil and water management, semiochemicals and microbial agents."

-Speaking of mosquitoes, have you been to Latin America? Have you done work in this region?

"Yes, in 2020 we signed an agreement with Scientia Colombia to collaborate on making more environmentally sustainable biological controls available in the fight against pests and diseases in less developed countries.

Bionema’s new line of microbial solutions for vector management are eco-friendly, effective, and significantly reduce the use of chemical pesticides in public health. Bionema’s public health solutions employ natural approaches that can help in keeping all types of environments free of disease-carrying pests such as mosquitoes, sandflies, biting midges, black flies, and other insects. Our expert team employs natural methods for controlling mosquitoes and other biting insects, such as ecological management, monitoring traps, pheromones, bacterial and fungal bioprotectants, always using a tailored approach to suit the environment in question. A range of experiments underway in Bangladesh, India, Brazil, and Africa."


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To request more information or send communications about biologicals, write to biologicalslatam@redagricola.com.   

Biologicals Latam es una revista digital trimestral de Redagrícola que informa de manera especializada sobre la intensa actividad que se está desarrollando en el espacio de los bioinsumos para la producción agrícola. Esta publicación en español e inglés es complemento del Curso Online de Bioestimulantes y Biocontrol y las conferencias que este grupo de medios realiza en torno al tema.