The Three Demons In A Plant’s Life: AST Fights Drought, Salinity, and Temperature

The three super evils in the galaxy of plant development and the bane of every farmer who has ever put a hoe or tractor blade in the ground are drought, salinity, and temperature stress.  A Seattle-based company which is backed by years of research, Adaptive Symbiotic Technologies (AST), has developed a series of microbial seed and plant treatments to combat these proverbial agricultural bugaboos. 

Now, more than ever, the technology is needed with the planet expected to have as many as nine billion people walking the earth by 2050 and only adequate year-round water for a third. One could easily say finding a solution to food and water issues is an urgent calling. It will take innovation combined with conservation, and that is where AST, which refers to itself as “the silent company,” is taking the lead in developing markets while continuing to innovate. Zachery Gray, the only non-scientist on the 22-person AST team, came to the Global Entrepreneurial Summit in The Hague in June to discuss his company and its innovations. The conference was sponsored by the U.S. State Department and the Dutch government. 

The forum was an opportunity for Gray to meet with other innovators as well as his other socially-conscious colleagues under the Securing Water for Food (SWFF) umbrella. SWFF began five years ago funding ground-breaking ideas which contribute to growing more food with less water. The project is backed by USAID, and the governments of South Africa, Sweden, and the Netherlands. 

“Plants simply don’t adapt to the various stresses on their own,” said Gray, the vice president in charge of business development and securing capital for AST to continue to innovate. In essence, the AST mission is to increase the tolerance of crop plants to weather and salinity stress. The products, currently in a liquid form called BioEnsure, are developed for a wide variety of cereals, vegetables, and industrial crops. It is applied using any seed treatment equipment. 

“We went to India with a passion that we could do some good,” said Gray. “We realize, however, it has great commercial potential.”

The company says the product is non-toxic and safe to handle. Since BioEnsure is not genetically modified, it is registered as organic by the Organic Materials Review Institute. During high-stress growing seasons, BioEnsure has been shown to increase plant yields from 30 to 80 percent. 

However, there has been very little marketing to the end-users. Marketing is generally through wholesalers because the plant application is sold under various brand names and not BioEnsure. “We license the various names, but we own the brand,” said Gray. 

The grant under the SWFF program, in which AST had to enter into a vigorous competition to win the award, was to demonstrate the product with small-plot farmers in India. This has led to a socially responsible initiative for AST to enlist women farmers in the distribution efforts. “We’re very proud of what we are doing here,” said Gray. “We are looking for additional funding to step up the program in India and hopefully elsewhere.”

The women are sought out and enlisted as agents—almost, one could say—as one would recruit Amway agents. It becomes a network of women-owned franchises. “They are trained, and become seed treaters with our product,” said Gray. “Our goal is to get capital to expand this to other countries as well. If we can prove this model works efficiently and is scalable, we can introduce it elsewhere.”

AST was launched when a scientist friend and neighbor brought the idea to Gray, who was completing his MBA at the time. He liked the idea, and after developing a business plan, helped raise $700,000 to launch the business. The SWFF program was the first time the seed treatment had been taken to poor, small-plot farmers in India. One of the partners had connections in a local village. The product was officially launched in 2017. To date, they have garnered more than $5.8 million in investment. 

“We went to India with a passion that we could do some good,” said Gray. “We realize, however, it has great commercial potential.”


USAID, Sweden through the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency (Sida), and the Governments of The Netherlands and South Africa invested $34 million in Securing Water for Food (SWFF) to promote science and technology solutions that enable the production of more food with less water and/or make more water available for food production, processing, and distribution.