If you are worried about toxic chemicals in food, then this is the podcast for you. We head to Davis, California, to speak with Pam Marrone, the founder of natural pest control company Marrone Bio Innovations. She helps farmers use alternatives to harsh chemicals — it’s a rapidly growing sector called “biologicals.” Pam is an entomologist by training and her early love for all things nature started in her mom’s Connecticut garden. Now she runs a publicly traded company that makes millions of dollars — and is helping farmers raise crops in an organic, sustainable way.
SUE: You’re listening to our series Good on the Ground...
VARIOUS VOICES: ...Good on the Ground...
COLLEEN: You’re listening to Good on the Ground from The Story Exchange, featuring women entrepreneurs making an impact in a world that needs fixing. I’m Colleen DeBaise.
SUE: And I’m Sue Williams.
COLLEEN: So we don’t normally start our podcast talking about giant agro-chemical companies…
SUE: That’s because they’re usually not led by women.
COLLEEN: No, they’re not. But today it’s important for context to talk about one in particular, Monsanto, which makes the world’s top-selling herbicide.
SUE: It’s called Roundup.
COMMERCIAL SOT: In a manner of days, Roundup controls many of the toughest grasses and weeds.
COLLEEN: That’s a commercial from some years ago —
SUE: — probably the 1980s or ’90s.
COLLEEN: Mm hm. And here’s another commercial — much more recent, not made by Monsanto, obviously, but by a personal injury law firm.
COMMERCIAL SOT: This is a legal alert, for users of Roundup Weed Killer — Roundup Weed Killer has been designated as a probable human carcinogen by the World Health Organization.
COLLEEN: Suffice it to say, there are serious health concerns about all the herbicides and pesticides we use.
SUE: On our lawns, in our gardens, in our playgrounds — and of course, on millions of acres of farmland.
COLLEEN: It’s estimated that farmers spray about 300 million pounds of glyphosate — that’s the main chemical in Monsanto’s Roundup — each year on crops like corn and soybeans, but also wheat and oats.
SUE: Traces of the weed-killer have been found in foods we give our kids, like Cheerios and Quaker Oats.
COLLEEN: And the companies who make these products, by the way, still say they’re safe — and Monsanto stands by Roundup. But as a direct result of all the controversy…
PAM: People are concerned about where their food comes from and how it's grown, and they want it to be grown in a safe way.
SOT: [bees buzzing, farm sounds]
COLLEEN: In this podcast episode we head to Northern California — where there are big farms and fertile growing conditions — to speak with an enthusiastic entomologist.
PAM: I'm Pam Marrone. I'm CEO and founder of Marrone Bio Innovations.
SUE (from tape): You're a fast speaker, so we'll speed right through this.
PAM: I am a very fast speaker.
COLLEEN: Pam specializes in natural alternatives to toxic chemicals.
SUE: It’s a fast-growing sector within agriculture called “biologicals.”
COLLEEN: It’s not the easiest field to break into —
SUE: — and there’s more and more competition —
COLLEEN: — but we’ll tell you how Pam has grown Marrone Bio Innovations into a publicly traded company that makes millions of dollars — and is helping farmers raise crops in an organic, sustainable way.
SUE: Stick around.
PAM SOT: This is a bacteria that we discovered from a rice field in Northern California.
COLLEEN: We’re in the lab with Pam Marrone.
PAM SOT: We test the toxicity of our product to plants, and that’s what this group does here. They do a lot of plants!
COLLEN: She’s got on safety glasses — her staff are wearing white coats and gloves.
SUE: She’s showing us some leafy vegetables — they’ve been sprayed with one of her products, Grandevo, which keeps those pesky “sucking-and-chewing insects” away.
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: So our products are derived from nature in two ways. We can find them from plants or we can find them from microorganisms.
COLLEEN: These so-called “biologicals” target only the insects that cause damage to the crops.
PAM: ...and don't kill the lady beetles, lice wings, and so forth…
COLLEEN: That’s different than traditional chemical sprays.
SUE: You’ve seen the pictures of vast fields, with tractors with those huge, wide boom arms, spraying the crops.
PAM: ...what is called a toxic motive action. That means it 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, whereas the bio insecticide works only on the insect and not on anything else.
SUE: Pam’s most popular product is Regalia, made from…
PAM: ...an extract of giant knotweed.
COLLEEN: It helps boost a plant’s immune system.
PAM: It stops diseases like powdery mildew, which is that dusty white stuff you see on your roses.
COLLEEN: Side note: it’s been popular with cannabis farmers.
PAM: So growers beat our door down, so now we're supporting them because we think it's a good thing to replace toxic chemicals on this crop, which is being consumed by people. Yeah. And for medical reasons. Yeah.
COLLEEN: But her products are primarily used by farmers who grow food crops.
SUE (from tape): Oh, give us a list. Yeah. Please.
PAM: Our products are primarily used on what we call high-value fruits, nuts, and vegetables. So grapes, leafy greens. Your lettuce mixes. Tomatoes. Peppers. Almonds. Walnuts.
COLLEEN: And her company is doing well.
PAM: Last year we had about $18.5 million dollars worth of sales and we're growing quickly, and so our products are being adopted.
COLLEEN: But it hasn’t been the easiest journey for Pam.
SUE: It certainly hasn’t.
COLLEEN: We’ll tell you about her startup story, filled with dramatic twists and turns, after this brief break.
COMMERCIAL: The Story Exchange is a nonprofit media company that provides inspiration and information for women entrepreneurs. If you like what you’re hearing, we’re proud to say we have another insect-themed podcast featuring Kristy Allen, a beekeeper who is running a thriving honey business, The Beez Kneez, in Minneapolis.
KRISTY: Everyday I get calls about, “How do I start a beehive?” or “I’m really interested in learning about bees...”
COMMERCIAL: Listen to Episode 32: Let’s Hear It For Honeybees.
COLLEEN: We’re sharing the story of Pam Marrone, who is the founder of Marrone Bio Innovations, a natural pest-control company. It trades on Nasdaq.
SUE: Pam’s been an insect lover all her life.
COLLEEN: She actually has a quirky habit of wearing insect-themed jewelry.
SUE: The day we interviewed her for our video profile —
COLLEEN: — which listeners can find on TheStoryExchange.org —
SUE: — she was wearing a large ladybug necklace and matching earrings!
COLLEEN: How many CEOs of publicly traded companies can say that?
SUE: Not many. Anyhow, she loves bugs.
COLLEEN: Though she likes to kill them!
PAM: I like to kill bad bugs, but I want to preserve the good bugs. So you have to distinguish between bad and good ones. So yeah. I don't like all bugs. Only the good ones!
COLLEEN: Pam grew up on a 40-acre property in Connecticut.
PAM: I spent hours by the pond looking at the pond life and the dragonfly nymphs and the water beetles and trying to identify them.
SUE: Her mother is a naturalist.
PAM: She knows the scientific name of every plant in the universe and I've never stumped her actually.
SUE: That’s so amazing.
COLLEEN: An interesting thing happened in Pam’s formative years, which really stayed with her.
SUE: It’s actually a story she uses to explain her business.
PAM: The gypsy moths are these horrible, hairy caterpillars; would come through maybe about every five or seven years.
PAM: My father went to the store and he bought a chemical. It's called Sevin or Carbaryl and it's a neurotoxin.
COLLEEN: He sprayed it on the tree — 24 hours later, all the gypsy moths were dead.
PAM: They were all dead in this black, messy goo.
SUE: But unfortunately, the chemical killed more than the gypsy moths.
PAM: There were lady beetles and lice wings and honey bees dead, and so my mother tracked me out and said, "Pamela, look at what your father did!" And she was just so mad.
COLLEEN: Lesson learned, her dad headed back to the store...
SUE: ...and bought one of the few eco-friendly products on the market back then.
PAM: It's derived from a bacteria that lives in the soil. The insects feed on it and they get a stomach ache and they die.
COLLEEN: Her dad sprayed it…
SUE: ...and they waited...
COLLEEN: ...and waited...
PAM: And I said, "Dad, how did it work?" And he goes, "Well, it makes your mother happy, it's good for the environment, but I don't know if it works."
COLLEEN: Unlike the knock-em dead chemical, it takes longer to see the results when you use natural products.
PAM: That's the difference between biologicals and chemicals.
SUE: That’s something Pam — to this day — spends much of her time educating farmers about.
PAM: For example, our product might stop them from feeding immediately, in less than a minute, but they might not die for four to seven days. So the farmer might say, "It's not working. I'm still seeing bugs out there." I'm saying, "Well, but it's not causing any damage. They've stopped feeding or they've stopped reproducing. They're not laying any eggs anymore," so it's an education that we have to do with the farmers.
COLLEEN: So after that early interest in bugs, Pam studied at Cornell University, eventually getting her Ph.D in entomology at North Carolina State University.
SUE: Her first job was actually at Monsanto — this was in the 1980s.
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. We want you to start up a whole new unit looking for new ways to control pests without the use of toxic chemicals." I go, "Woo hoo! This is exactly what I want to do."
COLLEEN: Pam stayed for 7 years...
SUE: Until the company made a pivot.
PAM: Monsanto decided they wanted to genetically modify crops.
SUE: So Pam did that for a while...
PAM: And that was very successful.
COLLEEN: And here we’ll pause for a second to explain how all this works. So, genetically modified means that something has been altered or manipulated in a lab, to produce a desired result.
PAM: Monsanto has corn and cotton that, now every single cell of the cotton and corn plant are engineered to contain a specific insect killing protein. So that when a bug takes a bite out of the crop it dies.
SUE: Monsanto also decided to genetically modify seeds so that they would resist its own Roundup herbicide.
COLLEEN: That means farmers can spray glyphosate — that’s the main chemical in Roundup — over their crops and not worry that the corn or the soybeans will die, just the weeds.
SUE (from tape): I can finally ask an expert. Is it good to eat genetically modified corn?
PAM: There has never been any human health effects seen with genetically modified corn, so those who are worried about the health effects, I don't see any scientific evidence that there's any harmful effects to anyone.
COLLEEN: Pam shares similar views, actually, with Monsanto…but she does voice a different concern.
PAM: I would say that the criticism of the genetically modified technology is that it's been so successful, that farmers grabbed it, and used it and overused it and not used it in a sustainable way. So now we have insects developing resistance to the engineered cotton and we have weeds that have developed resistance to the crops that have been engineered to resist glyphosate. So that's the problem.
SUE: All of this led to Pam leaving Monsanto.
PAM: That's very successful, Monsanto, but I was more interested in the natural stuff.
COLLEEN: She spent the next five years at Novo Nordisk’s biopesticide unit, until…
SUE: ...like many entrepreneurs…
COLLEEN: She felt “suffocated” by corporate policies and decided to strike out on her own.
PAM: In 1995 I started up AgraQuest.
COLLEEN: It was a biological pest-control company.
PAM: I started in literally a little garage here in Davis, and then got it off the ground, then went on to raise $60 million more in venture capital. Almost took it public and got it listed on the NASDAQ market, but my timing was off.
SUE: Long story short…
COLLEEN: She was scheduled to do the investor roadshow — that’s when you get people excited about your IPO — in September 2001...
SUE: ...the day after the terrorist attack.
COLLEEN: Here’s a clip of Louis Rukeyser from PBS about that time.
RUKEYSER SOT: A nerve-shattered Wall Street seem to have discounted virtually everything short of a total permanent shut down of American business.
PAM: I couldn't get the offering done, so some investor came in and did a takeover of the company.
COLLEEN: So, she said that pretty quickly, but this was not the outcome that any startup founder dreams of. Investors basically took control of AgraQuest, and Pam was pretty much forced out of the company she founded.
SUE: So she didn’t make any money when Bayer — the huge German company — later bought AgraQuest for $425 million.
COLLEEN: But undeterred...
PAM: I left AgraQuest in 2006 and started up Marrone Bio Innovations.
PAM: Probably the happiest time in my career was taking the company public.
COLLEEN: Here’s a clip from The Street.
THE STREET SOT: Marrone Bio Innovations just went public — the company priced its stock at $12 a share.
PAM: Most people think it's my name, but it's actually my dad's name. But I actually named it after him because I was starting up the company right when he was dying. And also because of the fact that he so influenced me in my career choices.
COLLEEN: She raised about $56 million dollars through the IPO.
PAM: It was an astonishing and important milestone.
SUE But the excitement collapsed a year later.
COLLEEN: Out of nowhere, Pam’s head of sales resigned.
SUE: He was indicted on charges of exaggerating income.
PAM: It was hell. The Securities and Exchange Commission oversees these things, and they 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 counsel who were so dedicated to this company and our mission, along with a team of employees who helped me along the way. And that’s why we’re still here today.
COLLEEN: Her company teetered on the brink before raising $30 million dollars from new investors in 2018.
SUE: Marrone Bio Innovations now has over 100 employees and about 10 different 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.
COLLEEN: Earlier in the podcast, we talked about competition — the good news for consumers is that market for natural pest control is huge and growing.
SUE: Chemical pesticides are under increasing scrutiny.
COLLEEN: And there’s been quite a bit of litigation — here’s CBS This Morning.
SOT: Monsanto was ordered to pay $289 million in damages to former school groundskeeper Dwayne Johnson.
SUE: The jury found that Roundup played a factor in causing his non-Hodgkin's lymphoma.
COLLEEN: Again, Monsanto says its weed killer does not cause cancer — but all the litigation has helped drive sales in the organic sector.
SUE: Hot startups include Indigo Agriculture, which has raised over $600 million dollars from investors.
PAM: We compete with large companies through innovation and being faster and more nimble and more agile.
COLLEEN: When we caught up with Pam recently, she said she believes she is the only public company exclusively in biologicals.
SUE: While the pressures of being a public company are real...
COLLEEN: ...Pam says she doesn’t let it cloud her mission.
PAM: 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. [laughter]
COLLEEN: We thank Pam Marrone from Marrone Bio Innovations for sharing her story.
SUE: And we thank you for listening. This has been The Story Exchange. Join us next time to hear more stories about innovative and inspirational women doing the things you’d never dream of. Or...maybe you would.
COLLEEN: If you liked this podcast, please share on social media or post a review on iTunes. It helps other people find the show. And visit our website at TheStoryExchange.org, where you’ll find news, videos and tips for women entrepreneurs. And we’d love to hear from you, especially if you know someone who should be featured on this podcast: Drop us a line at [email protected] — or find us on Facebook. Sound editing provided by Christina Kelly. Interview recorded by Sam Shinn. Executive producers are Sue Williams and Victoria Wang.