Laughing Gas Is No Laughing Matter

The Nitrogen Cycle

Nitrous oxide (N2O) — more commonly known as laughing gas — is the 3rd largest contributor to greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, after carbon dioxide and methane. It is almost 300 times more powerful than CO2 at trapping heat in our atmosphere and also depletes our ozone layer.

Between production and application, about 5% of world GHGs come from synthetic nitrogen fertilizer. 5% may not sound like much but that is A LOT. If we could find a way to get all the benefits of fertilizer without its negative impacts, we could make a real dent in addressing climate change. Fertilizer was discovered a century ago, when it was confirmed that nitrogen made plants grow more. It was the combination of the ingenuity of two German scientists, Haber and Bosch, which enabled the scalable process to make ammonia, the key ingredient in fertilizer. The discovery of synthetic fertilizer kicked off — together with better irrigation and optimized seeds — the Green Revolution, during which agricultural yields increased so significantly that world famine declined dramatically despite a tripling of the world population.

Haber and Bosch deservedly received Nobel Prizes for their contribution to humanity. But like many other technologies that enable progress, they create second order effects which we must address to continue enhancing humankind’s standard of living. In this case since natural gas is the main input into the Haber-Bosch process, our consumption of fossil fuels is increasing, and the excess nitrogen runoff in the fields is also contributing to climate change, contamination of rivers and ozone depletion. These facilities are also massive in size, so the distance product needs to travel to get to its final destination also contributes to emissions.

Now we must once again rely on human ingenuity to work on delivering nitrogen to our plants but reducing the unwanted side effects — the solution: cleaner and better nitrogen delivery and fixation.

Enter KulaBio. Using technology from Dr. Daniel Nocera’s lab at Harvard, Kula’s proprietary bioreactors create microbes capable of delivering organic, long-lived, slow-release nitrogen to the roots of the plants. No fossil fuels, no runoff, more N2 fixation at the plant level.

Field trials to date demonstrate at least equal and more often much better yields replacing synthetic fertilizer, and production costs are already competitive today in certain market segments. The goal is to scale to enable replacement of synthetic fertilizers, with no negative impact to farmers, who already have a challenging job generating profits in their farms.

KulaBio’s solution fits seamlessly into farmer’s existing processes, and without compromising their core focus: crop yields. Given the slim margins, multiple uncontrollable variables affecting output, and annual cycles of this business, farmers are understandably hard-pressed to innovate with anything that may negatively affect their costs or yields. However, KulaBio’s solution is administered (1) in the same manner as traditional fertilizer — be it via drip irrigation or watered or sprayed-, (2) with no incremental operational complexity — same schedules, no biofilm formation-, and (3) with proven results, increasing crop yields and oftentimes even shortening harvest periods, thereby increasing productivity.

Easier, cheaper, better solutions will win the day. Farmers do not need to focus on reducing climate impacts or compliance to find this compelling. However, with this approach they will in fact emit much less CO2, capture CO2 in the soils, and eliminate fertilizer runoff which creates downstream pollution and harms the ozone.

At Starlight Ventures we believe human ingenuity is the best path to help us address the challenges we face. We are constantly looking for the companies exploring the art of the possible in addressing the big questions that keep us up at night, such as in this case “how do we feed a growing population sustainably?” The answer: (1) the brightest entrepreneurs and scientists thinking from first principles how to address a problem + (2) a solution that works within the existing constraints and delivers superior value to the current alternative even without an altruistic mandate + (3) a best-in-class, committed team to turn the vision into a reality. In KulaBio, we believe we found the right recipe, and are honored to back them (together with our friends at Collaborative and Lowercarbon among others) as they seek to make our agricultural industry more productive, greener, and better for us all.

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Patricia Halfen Wexler

Patricia Halfen Wexler

Investor in the foundational companies of a better and more sustainable future. Mother of 3. Miami-based and proud Hispanic American