Alumnus Seeks to Solve Fertilizer Problem

by | Nov 30, 2020 | Agriculture, Alumni Profiles

Mike Miille, Ph.D. ’80, has helped build up multiple companies. His latest venture, Joyn Bio, is a moonshot venture founded by Bayer and Ginkgo Bioworks aimed at developing engineered microbes for more sustainable agriculture.

Formed through a program to drive innovation at Bayer, Joyn Bio is focused on engineering a microbe that would associate with a plant and convert nitrogen from the air to help it grow, reducing agriculture’s reliance on synthetic nitrogen fertilizer.

The technology would benefit growers and also help solve an increasing environmental problem: Pollution caused by production and use of nitrogen fertilizers.

“So you have this dilemma where it’s essential and not sustainable,” said Miille, who is CEO of Joyn Bio. “We are trying use microbes to provide growers with an alternative that is more sustainable.”

Miille described the long-term process that started with proof of concept, where the company has already made progress. A prototype could come in the next year or two. After that, it would work through the regulatory process.

“One of the requirements with Bayer, it had to be very big, very risky and by definition not an immediate payout,” Miille said. “We are pioneering a whole new class of solutions.”

Joyn Bio launched in 2017. Miille already had a strong track record combining science and business. His Ph.D. in agricultural chemistry led him first to California Analytical Labs, a company founded by fellow Aggie Charles Soderquist. He transitioned to agriculture in 2004, as leader of AgraQuest, a biological pest control company that was acquired by Bayer in 2012. Miille then became head of biologics for Bayer’s Crop Science division.

“I learned a lot about how big companies work,” he said. “It was a whole new world for me.”

Joyn Bio operates as an independent company, with microbial engineering in Boston and greenhouse and testing space in Woodland, California. Until the pandemic, Miille had split his time between the locations — along with some time in Southern California to visit his adult children and eight grandchildren.

“We have been sheltering down here so we can help out a bit,” said Miille. “And we are learning to run the company via a virtual world.”