Meet the Bug-Loving Entrepreneur Who Kills Pests Without Poison

Entomologist Pam Marrone has turned a fascination with insects into Marrone Bio Innovations Inc., a publicly traded company that develops natural pest-control products as alternatives to controversial pesticides. The Davis, California, business stands to benefit from a slew of bad legal news for Monsanto, maker of popular herbicide Roundup. But it hasn't been an easy journey for Marrone, who lost control of her first startup and went into debt after an accounting scandal at her current company.

By Christina Kelly

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PAM Probably the happiest time in my career was taking the company public. Because now everyone could buy stock in a company that was developing natural products that are more sustainable for the environment and can provide farmers with better return on investment.

TEXT Pam Marrone – Founder + CEO – Marrone Bio-Innovations,
Davis, Calif.

PAM Marrone Bio-Innovations develops natural products for controlling pests as alternatives to toxic chemicals. We've discovered new species of bacteria that control pests and plant diseases.

PAM SOT This is a bacteria we discovered from a rice field in northern California.

PAM And we have perfected the process of efficiently getting a product from discovery through to the commercial marketplace.

TEXT Pam grew up in rural Connecticut.

PAM My mom, she’s a lifelong naturalist and she knows the scientific name of every plant in the universe. She got me interested in entomology and I spent hours by the pond looking at the dragonfly nymphs and the water beetles and trying to identify them.

TEXT Pam graduated from Cornell University with a degree in entomology in 1978.

TEXT Five years later, she got her Ph.D from North Carolina State University.

PAM I became very interested in the holistic way to control pests rather than knock them dead with a toxic chemical. The chemical insecticide works on the nervous system of the insect as well as the nervous system of mammals, so that’s why it’s toxic to people. So that’s why controlling pests in a holistic way is really important.

TEXT After grad school Pam was hired by Monsanto.

PAM Interestingly, Monsanto said, “We’re going to move away from our toxic legacy of parathion and Agent Orange and we’re going to develop something completely new, and we want you to start up a whole new unit looking for new ways to control pests without the use of toxic chemicals.” And I go “Woo hoo! This is exactly what I want to do.”

TEXT After 7 years Pam left Monsanto when it changed focus to modifying crops genetically.

TEXT In 2006 she started Marrone Bio-Innovations.

TEXT She raised $70 million in start up funding.

PAM We compete with large companies through innovation and being faster and more nimble. Our products are derived from nature in two ways. We can find them from plants or we can find them from microorganisms.

PAM SOT Once we discover something, we have to show that it’s not harming crops. So this is a new version of Grandevo and this is spinach, I take it? Spinach and radish, cucumber.

PAM Our products are primarily used on what we call high-value fruits, nuts and vegetables. So grapes, wine grapes, table grapes. Leafy greens. Your lettuce mixes.

TEXT In 2013 Pam took her company public and raised another $56 million.

PAM It was an astonishing and important milestone. I actually had my mother come to the bell-ringing ceremony and her sister, and that was such a thrill for her to see that. There's so few companies that go public.

TEXT But the excitement collapsed a year later.

TEXT Pam’s head of sales abruptly resigned.

TEXT He was charged with exaggerating income and sentenced to prison.

PAM It was hell. The Securities and Exchange Commission investigated and it cost us $17 million and I had to lay off almost half of the employees in order to afford this. Why did we make it through? I had a chief financial officer, bless his heart, and a general council who were so dedicated to this company and our mission, along with a team of employees who helped me along the way. That’s why we’re still here today.

TEXT The company is recovering.

TEXT It has 100 employees and 7 products on the market.

PAM SOT About 25% of the leafy greens on the coast are grown organically.
-Does that mean you have 25% of the market?
-I would say on leafy greens, probably, yeah.

TEXT The market for natural pesticides is huge and growing.

PAM California is the best adopter of the biological technology, it is our best market. And even then we’re finding there are a lot of growers who are afraid to use these products because of the risk. “Oh, it might be riskier. Do they work as well as chemicals?” So we gather a lot of information to show that the products work, and then it’s our job to help educate the farmer on how to make them work on their farm.

TEXT In 2017 Marrone Bio-Innovations had $18.5 million in sales.

TEXT Pam tries not to let the pressure of the stock market cloud her

PAM Every quarter, we have to report our financials. But this is the long game. We’re changing agriculture to be more sustainable in the long run, so this is not a quarter to quarter thing. And also, bugs don't respect quarters and the weather doesn't care whether the quarter, our quarter is coming or not. Belief in the mission and vision is why we’re still here today and that’s why I would do anything to keep this company going.

Posted: October 9, 2018

Christina KellyMeet the Bug-Loving Entrepreneur Who Kills Pests Without Poison