With ground-breaking biotechnology capable of turning contaminated arable land back into fertile fields, Carlow startup MicroGen Biotech is aiming to clean up in China.
Targeting the €48bn Chinese arable land bioremediation market, the company has according to CEO and founder Dr Xuemei Germaine, gained a competitive advantage by being the only one offering microbial products which can, in addition to removing pollution from soil, also significantly increase crop yields and health.
Since setting up four years ago MicroGen has developed and tested both bioremediation and biostimulant technologies . It has already entered the Chinese market where it is working with 10 companies in four large paid trials.
MicroGen has now set out to raise €5m in funding.
“We need this to expand R&D [research and development], marketing and business development. Our plan is grow the company by establishing joint venture partnerships in markets across the globe and we are also looking at the option of licensing out our technology,” sais Ms Germaine.
A native of China, she obtained a PhD in bioremediation from Carlow IT in 2006 before working at Pfizer and subsequently setting up her own life science consultancy firm.
It was a trip to China on a trade mission with Enterprise Ireland that set her on her current path.
“People I met there told me my PhD in bioremediation was something I could use because this was something that China needed. One fifth of Chinese arable land is polluted and it needs more arable land to feed a population of 1.36bn people,” she explains.
She set up MicroGen as a spinout at Carlow IT where she had access to high-level R&D facility. Participating in the ‘New Frontiers’ startup programme, Ms Germaine later secured ‘Competitive Start Funding’ from Enterprise Ireland, in 2013.
“We tested our technology successfully by cleaning up of the former sugar factory site in Carlow which had 10,000 tonnes of contaminated soil,’’ says Ms Germaine.
The company subsequently cleaned up a contaminated site at a chemical company in Tipperary.
Applying for a patent, MicroGen carried out its first paid decontamination trial in Shandong Shengli oil field in China in 2014.
In 2015, the company secured €500,000 in funding from a private investor and from Enterprise Ireland.
Later in the year, it received further investment of €560,000 from a Chinese mining remediation company.
While focusing solely on the bioremediation market, MicroGen made a breakthrough in 2015 by identifying a market for natural microbial products which “ can enhance plant growth, reduce the need for chemical fertilizer and promote sustainable crop production”.
The now patented bioremediation product was designed for use by oil, coal and gas industries, owners of contaminated land, environmental remediation companies and land reclamation companies.
The biostimulant product for which a patent is pending, can be sold to farmers working stressed agricultural land that has been affected by drought, salinity or heavy metals, as well as to organic farmers and farmers working in sensitive environmental areas.
The company currently employs five full-time and four part-time staff in Carlow, as well as five full-time staff in China.
Clients in China include some large state-owned enterprises such as China Energy Conservation and Environmental Protection Group, and according to Ms Germaine, MicroGen is now well established there.
She believes it is well positioned to grow once it has secured the next round of the funding. In addition to growing sales in China, she also plans to develop new markets in India, the US and Europe.
“We expect to achieve a turnover of €1m next year and to grow this to €10m within three years. Once our funding is in place we plan to take on 20 to 25 staff,” she says.
Company: MicroGen Biotech
Set up: 2012
CEO: Dr Xuemei Germaine
Product: Bioremediation and biostimulant products