Science may be logical and quantitative, but the passions of scientists are unaccountable. Hélène Chiasson (pictured left) can't help but chuckle when thinking back to her days as an organic farmer when, she says, it was obvious from the start that she didn't have a green thumb. What she did have was a passion for agricultural pest management and a drive to understand it more deeply. She took that drive and turned it into a Ph.D. in entomology, which led straight into biopesticide research. "For me, it's been almost like a lifetime mission to develop agriculture products," says Chiasson.
Almost a decade later, she is now the co-founder and vice-president of research and development of a small bio-agricultural firm in Quebec. Codena Inc. is leading the charge to develop novel weed-based pesticides for use on commercial crops and recreational turf.
Piece of the pie
With chemical pesticides linked to a wide range of environmental and health hazards, provincial and municipal governments are limiting or prohibiting their use across Canada. These changes are making the development of organic counterparts to these products a viable business here. One example of such a product: The North American forest industry is using bacterial biopesticide Bacillus thuringiensis to fight defoliation. According to Statistics Canada, annual sales are estimated to be $40 million per year, and that's less than 1% of a $5-billion potential worldwide market for biopesticides. Other biopesticides, such as fungal bioherbicides for vegetation management, are being commercialized, with an estimated North American annual market value of $48 million.
The use of chemical pesticides is of concern to the public as well. While growers are looking for products that work well, the public demands products that are safe. Even large companies are considering developing more natural products because of public pressure. "With all the concern surrounding the use of pesticides, it's not surprising to see that the largest lobbyers at the government level is the public," says Chaisson.
Codena hopes to get a piece of the biopesticide pie by bringing to market two products ? one targeted for the environmental sector, for use mainly on turf grass and ornamental plants, and the other intended to help commercial growers. Both of Codena's pesticides currently are going through U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) registration. Registering pesticides in Canada takes a lot longer because biopesticides are lumped together with their chemical counterparts. "It could take years to register and cost millions here, while in the U.S. it could take anywhere from 1 to 2 years and less than a million [dollars]," explains Chiasson.
So Chaisson and her team are concentrating on commercializing their pesticides in the U.S. because not only is the market is easier to get into than the Canadian market, but it's also larger: "The market in that country alone is in the billions, but it's fragmented between the professional lawn care industry, golf courses, and home uses," she adds.
Chiasson's journey from the bench to the boardroom began back in the early 1990's while she was completing her Ph.D. at McGill University in Montreal, with research on insect pests in rice. Like most graduate students, she taught some courses on the side, and one of them was on plant protection. She noticed immediately that most of the course materials were based on anecdotal evidence, particularly when it came to the use of plant extracts as pesticides. She knew then and there that this was a topic what she wanted to pursue.
Upon graduating in 1993 with a Ph.D. in entomology with an emphasis on integrated crop protection, Chiasson won a postdoctoral industrial fellowship from the National Sciences and Engineering Rearch Council of Canada to work at a Quebec-based bioagricultural company that specializes in pesticide research and development. Her work at Urgel Delisle & Associés (UDA) focused on the identification, selection, and development of potential biopesticides based on plant extracts.
Two years later with the end of her fellowship in view, Chiasson began analyzing her career options. Staying within the corporate world was enticing, but continuing bench work would be difficult. "It's hard to find funding if you're not in an academic environment," she adds.
UDA noticed that Chiasson's research was promising, so they offered her a position as a research consultant, working on projects for Agriculture Canada and gaining international experience in places such as Egypt and Morocco. The specialized integrated pest management (IPM) programs she developed for these countries turned out to be quite successful. "These IPM programs are very big in Africa because they get funding from international funding agencies to develop more sustainable agriculture," explains Chiasson.
Then, in 2001, UDA teamed up with Foragen, a venture capital firm that specializes in bioagricultural product development, to form Codena, as a Foragen subsidiary. The goal was to develop and market efficient, cost-effective organic pesticides. At the heart of their future product were the biopesticides Chaisson had been working on since her postdoc at UDA. Now, as vice-president of research and development and a shareholder at Codena, Chiasson is excited to see her research bear fruit after all these years.
Network of talent
Codena uses some interesting staffing strategies for a successful R&D-based enterprise. Undergraduate students from local universities represent a big part of their rotating technical expertise, doing bench work and helping with documentation. Graduate students have been left out of the picture because of funding and logistical issues. Because the products are still under development and cannot be made public, there would be no room for graduate students to be able to publish their work. And because most of the work is applied in nature, there is limited funding for more basic research. But Chaisson believes this will change soon. "Until now we've had to keep it quiet, but as soon as the product goes to market, then we'll be able to have graduate students."
Despite the need to protect sensitive information, with only three full-time and three part-time employees though, there is, she acknowledges, little choice but to collaborate with partners in industry and academia. "A company has to prove that they have a sound research base. So we get experts to help us to plan; we don't do it all in house." she adds.
Thanks to UDA's connections in the research community, Codena taps into a network of scientific consultants in academia, government, and industry who join the company's scientific advisory committee. These researchers typically do the work on contract in their own labs. She says that this network is a great way to validate ongoing research and look into new possibilities for the future.
"It works well. Scientists are usually more interested in the research and not in the commercialization, so it's a good match." She explains, "They think of us as more of a springboard to push research forward."
Chiasson believes her company is unique in this way. "Most firms do contract out research, but to invite them to discuss R&D or be on committees, not all companies do that, especially to the extent that we have. We do our planning in teams and learn what makes sense to all of us."
In this network of experts, Chiasson believes that they have a sound infrastructure to bring research straight from the lab right up to commercialization. "It's easy to find things that work. But to produce them on a large scale and market [them], it's a whole new thing, and it requires a lot more expertise that maybe in-house researchers just don't have."
Back when she was working her own farm, Chiasson could never have imagined that she would be where she is today. "I always wanted to be in sustainable agriculture, especially in agriculture practices, but it was hard to find a job," says Chaisson. "So here I am now, actually creating synthetic products for sustainable agriculture."
For more information on Codena and its work, check out the company's Web site.
Andrew Fazekas is Canadian Editor at Next Wave and may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org