Biotech puts bacteria to work
MEXICO CITY — Alfredo Suárez Rivero, CEO of Alianza con la Biósfera, jokes that bacteria have suffered from a bad reputation ever since Louis Pasteur discovered germs. But Suárez Rivero has no fear of microbes.
Since 2003, his small biotech company in Mexico City, which translates as Alliance with the Biosphere, has been cultivating and selling microorganisms that can be used in wastewater treatment systems, in agriculture to enrich depleted soils and in fish farming to help protect shrimp and salmon from disease.
Trained as a civil engineer, Suárez Rivero found a new calling when he was forced to make a career change when his construction business collapsed following a severe economic downturn in 1994. The 54-year-old Mexico City native returned to school to pursue environmental and management studies. With that foundation, he established an environmental division within the chemical company Productos Químicos Mardupol.
Suárez Rivero said that when he realized it was not the right fit for either side, he offered to buy the operations from Mardupol with an original investment of $1.2 million. “I formed Alianza con la Biósfera with new partners and a new business vision,” he said.
AliBio, as the company is known, was set up to target three areas: wastewater, agriculture and aquaculture. In contrast to some of the larger agro-chemical companies that rely on chemical components or genetically modified crops, Suárez Rivero said AliBio focuses on sustainable products that aim to restore or maintain environmental balance. “What we are interested in is that the combination of various microorganisms work in synergy to achieve high production levels without disease, or soil deterioration, or water contamination,” he said. Ultimately this means achieving a larger harvest of salmon, shrimp or other products.
AliBio managed to break even in 2005, Suárez Rivero said. Revenue reached $3.8 million (50 million pesos) in 2009, and Suárez Rivero has set a sales goal of 85 million pesos for 2010, or about $7 million at the current exchange rates. “The demand for organic products worldwide is growing at around 20 percent annually, and all our agriculture and aquaculture lines are certified as 100 percent organic,” he said.
When the company needed additional financing and began talks with a private equity fund in late 2007, the negotiations tested the skills of the CEO steeped in science. “This is a new culture in Mexico and the lack of experience on both sides made it difficult,” Suárez Rivero said. “But it was also an enriching experience for me technically, emotionally and on the business side.” The deal took more than a year to close and was finalized in 2009. AliBio is currently also backed by six investor partners.
The company today has some 300 clients in Mexico, including producers of tomatoes, wine, bananas, avocadoes and shrimp. It is also readying a wastewater project with Wal-Mart de México, the country’s largest retailer. The developments in water treatment are also a way to contribute to Mexico’s attempts to better manage the scarce resource for which demand is increasing from agriculture, industry and a growing population.
One of AliBio’s biggest challenges is overcoming skepticism, Suárez Rivero said, adding that many producers in Mexico are resistant to change and wary of new products and techniques.
But he is trying to get the word out that a Mexican enterprise is capable of developing advanced biotechnologies. Suárez Rivero believes that effort will get a boost when the AliBio Science Center production laboratory expands this year to encompass a research and development facility. It will cost an initial $2 million, but AliBio is receiving support from Mexico’s National Council for Science and Technology and the government of the state of Sinaloa.
The R&D capacity will help further AliBio’s goal of becoming the leader in its field in Mexico and Latin America by 2016.
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