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Updated: October 7, 2022

Australian soil sequestration firm expands in SoPo

person with mask and disk Courtesy / Loam Bio A Loam Bio researcher studies a fungal sample.

An Australian company that’s developing a fungal product to help farmers fight climate change is expanding its Brunswick-based laboratory to a space nearly 10 times larger in South Portland.

Frank Oly, a co-founder and the COO of Loam Bio – in the state of New South Wales on Australia’s east coast – traveled to Maine this summer to check out the 3,500-square-foot space at 35 Foden Road and give the final go-ahead on the move.

“We think Portland is a great location,” Oly told Mainebiz. “It’s close to the biotech hub in Boston so there’s a lot of talent and technical knowledge in the area. We also think that with the great quality of life that Maine has to offer, we will be able to attract international talent. I’m really excited about expanding our operations to the area.”

covered flasks
Courtesy / Loam Bio
Fungal samples are tested for microbial soil sequestration – “one of the most elegant carbon removal solutions,” says Loam Bio’s founder.

Loam Bio’s North America bioprocessing manager and the lab’s lead scientist, Cassandra O'Brien, was integral to the search for a new space to build out the lab.

Sasha Bogdanovics of the Boulos Co. and Justin Lamontagne of the Dunham Group brokered the deal.

“It’s pretty cool that they chose Maine,” said Bogdanovics, who represented the tenant.

‘Elegant’ carbon removal

“Microbial soil sequestration promises to be one of the most elegant carbon removal solutions, as it is quick, globally-scalable and provides huge benefits for growers,” Loam Bio’s website says. “A farmer coats their seeds with the microbial inoculum before sowing and the plants and the microbes work together to build carbon in the soil and keep it there.”

The company says that building soil has additional benefits, such as increased soil health and nutrient-rich crops and higher yields.

Microbrial library

Loam Bio started in 2019 in Australia as an offshoot of a New South Wales nonprofit called SoilCQuest 2031 – a grassroots research institute of scientists, farmers, agronomists and educators that has a mission to help double the world’s on-farm carbon stocks by 2031. 

4 people in whitecoats smiling
Courtesy / Loam Bio
From left, Cassandra O'Brien, Katherine Lysak, Megan Hall and Dillon Holton at Loam Bio’s TechPlace lab.

The initiative “was born out of the recognition that there is an urgent global need to reduce emissions and draw down gigatons of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, to limit climate change and reverse global warming,” SoilCQuest’s website says. 

The goal is to integrate agricultural landscape resilience and productivity with carbon sequestration and environmental enhancement.

Researchers at Loam Bio work with a “diverse microbial library to develop new products, which are at the intersection of climate and agriculture,” according to its website.

The company has developed a microbial seed coating that increases the quantity and stability of carbon being built in agricultural soils. Loam’s products are backed by research and farm trials.

TechPlace startup

Loam Bio’s North American headquarters is in St. Paul, Minn. 

Its North American bioprocessing laboratory has been in shared bio-lab space at Brunswick Landing’s TechPlace since March 2021, said O’Brien, who connected with Loam Bio as a specialist in fungal fermentation who once worked for a Boston, Mass., firm called Indigo, which has a similar mission.

seedlings in pots
Courtesy / Loam Bio
In addition to the ability to sequester carbon, the fungus must have a good relationship.

It’s expected that Loam Bio’s pilot scale lab at 35 Foden Road will be built out by April 2023. 

The new location itself is advantageous, as companies look to move north from Boston, O’Brien said.

“We’re trying to take advantage of that bio tech movement,” she said.

Harvesting fungus

So what does “microbial soil carbon sequestration” mean?

“We harness fungal organisms from nature and put them through a series of genetic and laboratory screenings to see which ones will most likely promote soil carbon sequestration,” O’Brien said. “The way that works is, we introduce them to agriculture spaces alongside crops, like corn, soy or cotton.”

The idea is that the fungal organisms share a symbiotic relationship with the plants. 

“As the plant photosynthesizes and harnesses CO2 from the atmosphere, the fungal organism introduced to the plant will also capture that carbon,” she continued. “Basically, that carbon associates with mineral structures in the soil, which enables the carbon to remain stable in the soil for a long period of time.”

The idea is that the fungal organisms share a symbiotic relationship with the plants. 

The company collaborates with farmers to monitor the amount of carbon being sequestered by the fungus throughout the growing season.

building with signs
Courtesy / The Dunham Group
Loam Bio is leasing a 3,500-square-foot space on the right side of 35 Foden Road, where the left condo is owned by Agren Appliance.

The captured carbon is viewed as a kind of second crop that can be sold as carbon credits, with the farmer earning most of the proceeds of the carbon-credit sales and Loam Bio taking a percentage.

The Maine lab grows the fungus that is found through a process called “bioprospecting” – going into nature, collecting plants, isolating microbes from the plants, and identifying what the microbes are through a genetic coding process that helps researchers predict whether they would be viable for soil sequestrations.

That’s followed by lab procedures designed to ensure the fungus is safe for particular crop plants, then to figure out how to grow the fungal organism.

“Every strain is different and requires different nutrients,” O’Brien said. “We have to put it through screening to figure out the best way to grow it at scale.”

Loam Bio is still in the advanced field trial stage in the US.

“We’re not on the market quite yet as a product, but our Australian branch is preparing for a commercial rollout. ” O’Brien said. 

The company contracts with research farms around the globe that help with field trials.

The company has homed in on several different strains that are expected to have a good chance of having a positive impact on soil carbon sequestration.

In addition to the ability to sequester carbon, the fungus must have a good relationship with the plant it’s colonizing and cohabitating with.

At TechPlace, the lab has about 500 square feet and four employees, including O’Brien.

At 35 Foden Road, the space will be expanded to 3,500 square feet.

“The whole point of this build-out is so that we can expand our team, our production capacity and our research and development capacity,” she said. “This expansion in  South Portland will allow us to have the space and flexibility to explore exciting new technology that could help change the course of global warming.”

Another condo at 35 Foden Road is owned and occupied Agren Appliance, a family-owned appliance and mattress company headquartered in Auburn.

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