Episode 16
Is the future of pest control biologics and bees?
Bee Vectoring Technologies (BVT) helps farmers achieve greater yields and fight pests with bees. In this episode, I chatted with founder, Ashish Malik, who wanted to create an agricultural solution that could support feeding the earth's growing population. BVT's technology starts in a 'smart hive', where bees dip their bodies in a non-toxic biological fungicide before going off to do their bee business. Bees pass the fungicide along to the plant 95% more efficiently than farmers' sprays--which means less fungicide is needed in the long run. Their proprietary fungicide technology, is known as a "biologic", or a living organism that can help fight off or deter agricultural pests. "Biologics" have become a recent buzzword in agriculture--even though the technology has actually been around for 20+ years. Enjoy the show!
Wendy: Hello everybody. And welcome to the evolve.ag podcast. I'm here with Ashish Malik, the CEO of Bee Vectoring Technologies also known as BVT. Welcome to the show Ashish. Thanks so much for joining me today.

Ashish: Hi, Wendy. Very happy to be here. Hello to everyone.

Wendy: Thanks again so much for being on the show. Can you tell us a little bit about yourself?

Ashish: Yeah. So, I've been in the agricultural industry for about 20 years and what's interesting is I actually, in my early half of my career, if you will, I was doing things other than agriculture. So I pivoted into agriculture when, we started a family, my wife and I, and I feel very passionate about

making sure that we have a sustainable food system for the generations to come. We need safe and affordable food everybody that, walks on this wonderful planet of ours.

Wendy: Wonderful. And can you tell me what is Bee vectoring technologies or BVT?

Ashish: Yeah. We work with farmers and we help them grow their crops in a more productive and healthy manner. Specifically, we have products that help farmers help their plants fight different diseases and pests in an all natural way, but we also help those farmers achieve higher yields, therefore producing more, fruit per acre or more crop per acre.

and what's unique about BVT is we work with these biological solutions, which are delivered to the plants in an all natural way. So unlike traditional methods where farmers will use heavy machinery to spray these products onto crops, we actually use the natural pollination process of bees, we harness that process to deliver these products to the crops.

Wendy: Wow. That's really cool. So it's all natural you're using stuff that already exists in the environment like bees to help spread the good fungicide, I suppose. Can you talk a little bit about what it is that they're spreading?

Ashish: What we have at the very core, there are products that can interact with plants to help them fight different diseases and pests, and in the traditional way, when people think about that, you think about pesticides, right. But, but there are also now thankfully biological products that can have the same kind of an effect.

So you can think about them, you know, the analogy on the human health side is, thinking about a probiotic that is a biological product that helps us be healthier and stronger and even boosts our immune systems. So the same kind of idea, it gets translated with these biological products that are applied to crops, and they've been shown to be viable alternatives and substitutes to chemical pesticides.

So they may have a, a fungicidal effect, which means that they help the crop fight different diseases. They may have an insecticidal effect, which makes them less immune to destruction by insects. Insects they want the feed and they could damage crops so on and so forth. So those are the kinds of products we have, and that we work with.

Of course they are biological, not synthetic chemicals.

Wendy: That's really cool. Maybe we can just take a step back for a second. I'm curious, there's a whole industry around biologics, and I know you were very prominent in that. Can you talk a little bit kind of how that industry started and I mean, you just gave a pretty good summary of , what you guys were using as biologics, but is there a wider world of biologics as well?

Ashish: Absolutely. Wendy. So, yeah, I've been involved in agriculture for 20 years or so 18 of them have been in the biological space and I've looked at biologicals from all different aspects and all different regions around the world. I'm actually a director of the biological products industry association here in North America.

So when I say biologicals, the first question is, what is it? How do we define them? Very simply they're defined as products that are derived by nature in some form.So common types of biological products used in agriculture are, are microbial products. So these will be microorganisms, there'll be bacterial products.

They might be fungal spores-- fungi-- that have a beneficial effect. In some cases, viruses are also used. It's kind of a difficult word for people to think about these days, unfortunately, but, but nonetheless, there are viruses that could be very effective in, in agriculture. And then there's another second category, which are, plant extracts, so derived from plants.

So that's the, the broader category. those are the sectors within biologicals. It's about on a global basis, a $4 billion industry now, and it's growing at about 10 to 15% on an annual basis. And really, which is explosive growth considering that it's taking share away from the chemical counterparts, which are pretty much flat.

So the future is very bright for these types of products. And, yeah, there's a lot of really interesting products,available to farmers these days.

Wendy: Wow. That's really cool. $4 billion industry. I mean, that's nothing to sneeze at, for sure. Now are biologics, can they be used in crops that are labeled organic?

Ashish: Absolutely most biologicals can, because they are derived from a natural source. are a few exceptions because in order for the biologicals to be used, the manufacturer may have to formulate it in a certain way. And there may be an odd inert ingredient that's not considered organic.

But that's very much the exception. I would say 95% of biological products also are approved for organic agriculture.

Wendy: Got it. So it sounds like biologics. I mean, it's kind of a new term, I guess, but it's something

Ashish: Yeah.

Wendy: been using, along

Ashish: yeah.

Wendy: this whole time, just

Ashish: Yeah.

Wendy: and shapes, it sounds like, are there companies or. Universities they're doing any types of studies on biologics and like the effects on the environment, things like that.

Ashish: They've been studied for decades now. Including going through this rapid, expansion phase. Biological products have been used, like I said, 20, 30 years to see some of the early products that were introduced in the 80's and, and for sure they've been studied by different academic institutes, the land grant universities, the products that, have a biological pesticidal claim that they make also have to be approved by the EPA.

So they go through a regulatory approval process, just like a chemical product would to make sure that there are totally safe. And, the biggest endorsement that I can give is that they've been used very safely without any incident in these last 20 or 30 years. When you think about how many chemicals can you, can you say the same thing for, right.

So, so absolutely they're very safe and they've been very well studied and understood.

Wendy: Well, exactly to your point about chemicals. I mean, we just hear horror stories over and over again about what's happening in the produce industry, with pesticide residue and things like that. So it's a breath of fresh air to hear about this not really new, but

Ashish: Yeah.

Wendy: new trending, field of biologics.

Ashish: The interesting thing about, about residues at, sorry, Wendy, I would, I would just wanted to add is, so when you think about, you know, residues of pesticides on a crop, right? So whenever a new chemical product is introduced, the FDA actually works together with the EPA to establish a maximum residue limit, which says to the farmer that when the crop is picked, you have to have less than, you know, X milligrams per gram of this chemical on your apple, whatever the crop might be.

Right. And the farmer actually has to make sure that that MRL is met. And the interesting thing is that MRL's are different in each country around the world. it becomes a bit of a nightmare for a farmer who's growing apples who is exporting because Japan has a different tolerance limit than, than the US might or China might.

And so on, right. If they're shipping across the Pacific. So, it's, it's really a big headache for the farmer to think about these MRLs. On the flip side, most biological products are MRL exempt. They have been proven to be safe for human consumption. So the FDA and the EPA have basically said, there's no limit to the farmer on the, on the residue for that biological.

So it's really a no brainer for them to start using these products, for these crops that are exported.

Wendy: It sounds like it's a much more convenient, alternative and better for the planet too.

Ashish: Exactly.

Wendy: Awesome. Well, let's go back to talking about BVT. How many people do you have there at the moment?

Ashish: Yeah, we're, we're a small company. We have a core group of about 15 people. And we're spread out around the world.

We have folks in Canada, we actually incorporated in Canada. We've got, you know, myself, I live in California, we've got other people in the U S of course sales reps and the like Mexico and Switzerland as well.

Wendy: Wow a small but powerful team for sure. So, can you just give me an example of what one of your products and how it

Ashish: Yeah.

Wendy: or what the cycle is?

Ashish: Since we're talking about biologicals, so let's talk about our biological CR7. So that's an abbreviation for Clonostachys Rosea strain CR7. It's a mouthful. So let's just call that CR7. CR7 is a unique strain of a beneficial fungi we isolated in the soils in Ontario.

It's a very unique strain because it helps fight different diseases on a variety of different crops. So that particular strain we have exclusive rights, for use in agriculture. So we have some IP around,around that strain, we grow it just like you might grow a mushroom. We grow it in a fermentation chambers and in our plant in Ontario.

And then we use our bees and our dispensers to deliver this product to the crops. And so you should think about BVT as kind of having two sides to its technology. One is the biological product itself, but then the part that makes us truly interesting and unique is where the bees come in, where we have dispensers through which this biological product, our CR7 is actually delivered to the crop in a very efficient and effective way.

Wendy: Now do the bees live in those dispensers or are they just lured in with some goodies?

Ashish: So, so, so we work with commercial bees, so we don't work with, the native bees in the environment, but there's about 3 million beehives just in the U S that are used for commercial agriculture for commercial purposes. so there may be used for pollination purposes. The farmers will rent these bees from the beekeepers, for pollinating their crops.

And in many cases, these bees kind of move around the US pollinating crop by crop. So they may start in California at February pollinate almonds, then move up the coast to the Pacific Northwest and they'll do blueberries and cherries and apples. And then they kind of circled back in the Midwest.

They might do alfalfa and other crops and the cycle repeats itself every year. we work with these commercial bees. And our dispenser actually attaches to these beehives. And by the way, we've got a different solution for bumblebees. And we can talk about that a little bit later, which also works kind of the same way the dispenser goes into the beehive.

And what happens is when the foraging bees leave the hive, because they're looking for food, they're looking for pollen and nectar to feed the colony. They walk across this powder of ours in the dispensers. And then they fly with the powder to the crop when they reached the crop and they start their pollination.

When they're looking for their food, they're foraging, the powder drops off their body. The microbe our CR7 in this case, colonizes the plant and the plant tissue and gives the farmer, the properties that they're looking for in crop protection. The bees, in the meantime, will pick up pollen and return to the hive and the whole cycle repeats itself every day during that bloom period.

Wendy: Got it. So the bees leave the hive, they go into your dispenser and then they go off to do their bee activity for the day.

Ashish: Exactly, exactly. That's

just how it works. Yeah.

Wendy: cool. now are there specific species of bees that work better for this?

Ashish: Yeah. We've got dispensers that work with bumblebees as well as with honeybees. There's certain kinds of bees that are preferred for certain crops that have been shown to be better pollinators. So from our perspective, you know, having a dispenser that works with the common bumblebee, we work with the bumblebee that's native.

east of the Rockies, right? So for the, let's say the two-thirds of the U S and Canada, that's east of the Rockies. We have the dispenser for the Bombus and Patience and then we have a dispenser system that works with the European honeybee that we are all familiar with and love, right. The ones that give us the honey.

Ashish: And that covers pretty much all the crops that we care about in North America.

Wendy: Got it. And what crops are you guys focused on right now?

Ashish: We deliberately started on a small set of crops because we couldn't boil the ocean. You know, you're running a business. You have to make sure you, start and do the first crop successfully. started with blueberries in the Southeast.

We've now expanded. As we come out to the west coast to raspberries and blackberries. We're doing work in strawberries. So I would say berries as a group is the first crop, but now we're beginning our development stages in the oil seed crops. So these would be sunflowers and canola.

and of course the big opportunity for us are the tree nuts and almonds. There's over a million acres of almonds in the central valley, California. And we're doing work with the, with the almond growers as well. And then down the road, we have projects for apples and cherries and stone fruits, and so on.

Wendy: Got It. So speaking of the almond growers. I'm just curious. There's a lot of critique right now around the almond growers and other monocropping, farmers, especially those with trees and then the interactions that they have with the bees.

A lot of the bees, you know, there's studies coming up that when. Specifically pollinate, just one type of crop, especially these big trees that they actually they don't do so well. They have failing health, they

Ashish: Uh,

Wendy: of diseases, bacteria viruses in their hives, especially types of bees that are the worker bees that move from farm to farm, to farm pollinating,

Ashish: yeah.

Wendy: thing.

Yeah. does your technology kind of help the bees health by any chance?

Ashish: Yeah, it can. So the interesting thing about our technology is that if you think about the, just the dispenser system, so there's, which is a great way to deliver product to the, to the tree, to the crop, it's also a great way to bring a product into the hive. So there are people that are, that are making, you know, probiotics for bees.

These are products that'll help them their and strengthen their immune systems and help them fight disease and things like that. Our technology can actually be flipped to say, we can bring these products into the hive for the colony's health. So, so yes, now we, we don't ourselves have those products in our portfolio.

But there are people that we're talking to that do and, you know, call them, you know, medicines for the bees themselves. So we could be, uh, a dispensing system for those types of products also. But going back to the almond growers, you're you're, you're right. They are coming under some of these,points of criticism.

One of the things that the growers are trying to do is they're trying to plant wild flowers between the rows of their trees to change the kinds of nutrients that the bees are collecting and feeding on. So that's certainly helping. The direct impact that our technology has is by using the BVT system.

And therefore using a biological, the farmer can actually reduce the amount of chemical fungicides that they're spraying. Right. And we do know now that those chemical fungicides. They may not be killing the bees directly, like some insecticides might, but there's a lot of data that shows that it still affects the colony's health in the long run.

So, you know, the bees in a sense are actually going to be helping themselves by using our system.

Wendy: That makes a lot of sense. So there's health benefits for the bees by using your technology? Is there any negative effects on bee health that you all have found?

Ashish: Not so far I don't anticipate there will be, we've done a lot of work. We've been studying this technology really bee vectoring has been studied for about 20 years in an academic setting as BVT, we've been doing it for about 10 years. In order to bring our product to market, we've had to do bee safety studies to satisfy the EPA's

requirements. We've had to do additional studies just to answer questions that beekeepers have. And, we've done a lot of work where we've asked beekeepers to kind of track in the real world, how our dispensers are interacting with their hives. And we asked them to kind of, you know, set up a number of dispensers on, let's say a dozen hives.

And then we have a dozen hives where there are no dispensers and, and track how each colony develops. And we've seen No, no effect. Certainly no adverse effect. In some cases beekeepers have reported a positive effect, but we don't want to make those claims at this point.

Wendy: That's great though. I mean, it's nice to hear that there's a positive right now.

So when you started this company, did you ever think you were going to become a bee expert?

Ashish: Personally, no. And I would say that of those 15 people in our team, we still don't really have one true bee expert. We know a lot about biological products. So we know about agronomy. We know about, crop protection advice, and biostimulant effects. and, we rely on academics.

We've got partnerships with different, bee around the world, really. And then we've also got partnerships with, with bee companies. So we kind of filled our gap in knowledge through these relationships that we have.

Wendy: Can your technology be used for other purposes?

Ashish: So what's interesting is our dispenser system , is now at least for honeybees, is a, what we call a it's a, it's an electromechanical device. And so it's got a little computer chip inside and then it's got a battery and a microprocessor. And so the next stage for us is to develop that into what we call a smart hive.

Right? And so there are people and companies that are working on technologies that will go and assess the strength o f a beehive. They've got sensors that go inside that measure.. They've got microphones that listen for things and temperature sensors, and so on to look at the environment that the brood lives. And the reason they do that is because a beekeeper can then proactively go and take corrective action if they sense a colony is not doing well. Well, the cool thing about what we can do is to integrate those systems with ours so that you could end up with one smart hive that is measuring the parameters to make sure that the bees are healthy.

And controlling the delivery of the biological product that the farmer wants. Right. So take care of the beekeeper's needs as well as taking care of the grower's needs. So that's where we see , our technology going in the years to come.

Wendy: Oh, that's really cool. I love that. It's a holistic solution for both parties. If you want to call the bees a party

Ashish: Yeah. Yeah.

Wendy: involved. So what have been some of the more challenging aspects of BVT? I mean, you all have been doing this for a long time. You've, you know, gotten different types of funding throughout the years, or even on the stock market

so what have been some of the challenges.

Ashish: Yeah. I mean, so development cycles in, in agriculture take long. So I mean, think about if you're doing a trial to show, if your system works on, on almonds right? Almonds bloom only once a year, they'll bloom from mid February to mid March. And you put your system out to trial and the nature of what our solution is is we are a crop protection solution.

So we, We look for disease and we see, does our system work better than the control or the untreated control? Just like a pharma company would do a clinical study. , and because you're working in the environment, you're going to have situations where California, for example, this year we had no rain--right? And so very dry, very, very hot, no wind, which basically means that the disease just doesn't develop. So we did five trials this year and we're likely not going to get any useful data.

And now you're going to go repeat it in 2022. So these are the kinds of challenges that, not only BVT, but any company has to face in agriculture, you can miss a season for no fault of your own. Right? And then on the other side, we are submitting products for regulatory approval.

And, and you can never predict timelines, right? As, as, as much as we would like to say that, you know, our, you know, bureaucrats in Washington kind of follow a process at a timeline, it's not true. They don't. And so being able to tell our shareholders, yeah, we're going to have registration on this date.

Therefore we can launch on that date. well, you know, I have to always hedge those kinds of discussions . And so those are some of the challenges, the predictability of the business in terms of seasons and hitting milestones that are outside of our control. The rewarding part of what we do though, is we know we're making a positive impact.

We know we've got a solution that we growers are very excited about each time we have conversations with them and says, this sounds great. We'd love to trial it. Right. We've never, we've never come. I've never come across a grower that says this is a really stupid idea. Never happened. So we know that what we're doing is good.

You kind of just be patient and deal with some of the challenges and you move along.

Wendy: That's really, really exciting stuff. you all partnered with anyone in the controlled environment ag space, like vertical farms or anything like that?

Ashish: Yeah. I mean, so we have, we've done very limited work in, in greenhouses just because it's, it's still not a big market in the us, but we've done greenhouse studies in Europe. And in, in what have we done work? We've done work in tomatoes and strawberries and peppers. we will be doing more work in the greenhouses.

In the Midwest and tomatoes and peppers, for example, in Michigan. And there's a big market on the Canadian side. We need to have regulatory approval in Canada before we can do those studies though. So yes, greenhouse is a great opportunity for us. Certainly vertical farming at some point will become an opportunity.

Most of the crops that are grown in vertical farming right now are for example, leafies and lettuces and things like that, where you wouldn't use bees. So not a great market, but when you're talking about tomatoes and vegetables and strawberries, you would be using bumblebees. And then yes, we would be a great solution for those.

Wendy: That's very cool. What has been one of the more surprising things about BVT that happened in the past couple years?

Ashish: I think the overall reception that we've been getting has been doing has been tremendous. And I don't want to limit that just to growers. Right. So whenever we do talk about this technology to, for example, regulators, right. The EPA, as frustrating as the process can be with the regulators,

what we found is it's been a very engaging conversation. The reason it took a little bit longer than we would have liked is because we were the first company that were coming to register this kind of a concept. And I can tell you, you know, I've worked at Bayer I've worked at Syngenta, the big global multinationals.

If we were bayer or Syngenta bringing this technology to the EPA, we would not have had any kind of, you know, a partnership of a discussion. But knowing that it was a small company trying to do some, some good stuff, we had a very open discussion with them. They said, this is really interesting. Let's think about how we can get you guys in the market.

So it was a very much of a collaborative discussion. So growers, the regulators and also industry partners... being a small company with only 10 or 15 people, we need partners to expand our marketing footprint, right.

To be able to sell into other markets. And we're talking to companies in Europe and North Africa in Latin America already, who are very excited about this and want to be our partners and they could be partners. Sell the system in their countries. There are other partners that have their own biological products that we are discussing about kind of in-licensing to expand our product portfolio.

So instead of having just CR7, we may have product X, Y, Z, that could also be used for bee delivery and that product XYZ might control a whole different set of pests and diseases for the farmer. So then we might be able to reduce the number of chemical insecticides also one day. That's, what's really exciting that this technology now people are thinking about how they can help us expand its use.

Wendy: Do you think this would be something that you could see, like bees delivering fertilizer to plants? Would that be option?

Ashish: Absolutely. So I mean, the main thing that you got to think about. The bees visit flowers, right? So they don't visit the roots and the soil. So to the extent that a crop has a nutritional need, that can be satisfied through the flower and provided the product itself is safe for the bees. Then absolutely this could be a technology that delivers that product in a very efficient way, because the alternative to using the bees is to spray. And when you're spraying and you want to get a product to the flower, only 5% of what you're spraying lands on the flower. in a sense is wasted versus through bee vectoring, a hundred percent of the product gets to the flower.

So you can use it for crop protection. You can use it for biostimulant effect. You can use it for crops, nutritional needs, and, and on and on.

Wendy: Well, so just a really multipurpose technology is what it sounds like.

Ashish: Yeah.

Wendy: So tell me, what's the future of BVT. Where are you all going in the next couple of months? Couple of years.

Ashish: So we have to continue, you know, we are commercial in the U S now we've been selling for two years. We have about 40 customers that used our system this last season, that pretty much just completed. We're beginning the early, sales process for the next season. So obviously continued growth in the US is kind of our

biggest objective. But then beyond that, what we want to do is start on geographic expansion. How do we take what we've learned and the know-how that we've built in the U S and apply it to Mexico, to Canada countries in Europe. so geographic expansion is underway. and then the portfolio expansion, I kind of touched on that already, where we bring more products in to the portfolio of bee vectoring

and deliver those to farmers. So, leveraging our know-how for geographic expansion, leveraging our assets for portfolio expansion. Those are things that we're going to be working on a lot in the next 12 months, in addition to continuing the U S sales expansion.

Wendy: Got it. And who is funding BVT or who's supporting it. Are you guys looking for funding and other avenues, anything like that?

Ashish: Yeah. Yeah. so we are a, we're actually a Canadian company and , we are public, we've been public since 2015 and our main board, stock exchange is in Canada it's the CSE, the Canadian securities exchange where also crosslisted over the counter here in the us. And we're, cross-listed in some exchanges in Europe as well.

But the primary source of capital for the company comes from issued Canadian share. So we have investors that have invested in BVT directly. We've raised about $20 million since we went public in 2015. Now that we're going into global expansion, we're working on our next round of financing.

Wendy: Got it. Okay, great. Well, listeners, keep that in mind and keep an eye on BVT for sure.

Ashish: right?

Wendy: one more question,. you've been in the agriculture industry for a long time. What do you see as the future of agriculture? Are there any specific industries or trends that stand out to you, what do you think is going to happen in the next couple of years?

Ashish: Well, you know, I think it's a really bright future. Fundamentally I think what we need to figure out and by we, I mean the bigger the society as a whole, what we need to figure out is, how do we feed a growing population? In an environmentally responsible way. Right? I mean, the fact of the matter is there's, there's going to be more people walking this, this planet than there were 10 days, 10 years ago.

Right. And it's expected to reach almost 10 billion people the next 30 years. So how do we make every acre of land that farmers. farming are more productive so that farmers don't have to destroy the Amazon to make more agricultural land. Right. So we've got to find a way to double productivity per acre, doing that in an environmentally responsible way, no water or less water, I should say chemicals, et cetera, et cetera.

I think that is a fundamental challenge to me. It's the biggest challenge that we have. Right. change comes into that conversation as well, by the way, because agriculture is a big pollutant, if you will, off the, off the air as well. So, and I really feel that this is not just those of us within the industry.

My ask of your audiences, everybody needs to get educated about some of these issues. They need to get educated about some of the challenges. For a food systems moving forward. And, but what that means in terms of the industry is development of solutions such as BVT and innovation are absolutely paramount to be able to solve some of these challenges.

Right? So, so whether it's BVT or the next company that comes along. You know, I think the future's very bright for people to be thinking about these environmentally responsible solutions that make agriculture more, more productive.

Wendy: Wonderful. And I definitely agree. I think it's the only way it's going to, we're going to be able to survive, , and also have healthier food and, people eating more nutritiously,

Ashish: Absolutely.

Wendy: and sustainably.

Is there anything else you'd like to add?

No, I think this has been a great conversation. The last thing I'd want to point out is, we've got a really cool idea and, and most people may think about this as, wow. That sounds really interesting. It's kind of a moonshot idea, but the reality is we are doing it.

Ashish: It's not just an idea. Right? So people may, may think that this is just a wonderful idea, but it doesn't have any practical application on the contrary, we've got 40 customers. We grew revenue by 47% year on year this last season. And we believe that we'll be able to hit that kind of growth in the future as well.

So it is a deployed technologies might as, is the last point that I want to make, you know, and I encourage people to see some of the testimonials from growers that are on our website, follow us on our different channels. beevt.com is our website, but we are on Twitter and on Facebook and LinkedIn. We post pictures of growers using our technology and the comments from, from different folks.

So that's probably the last thing, that we are a very real company doing some, noble things.

Wendy: Yes, very important work, indeed. , important work that's non-invasive and helping create a more productive and, you know, and more sustainable planet. So thank you.

Ashish: Great.

Wendy: being on the podcast Ashish. I really, really appreciate it. And, I hope the audience loved this too. And follows you and checks out your website.

There's some Great.

videos on there too. everybody have a great rest of your day and that's the show.

Ashish: Thank you.