Company 360: Q&A With Rusty Rodriguez, Adaptive Symbiotic Technologies, CEO

team-astPictured: Team AST at a company retreat in 2016.

Q&A with Dr. Russell Rodriguez, Ph.D., Chief Executive Officer, Adaptive Symbiotic Technologies

Tell us a little about AST and your business model?

AST is a socially conscious company with a focus on increasing food security and agricultural sustainability by mitigating impacts of climate change on crop production.  Based on 25 years of research by ASTs founder (Regina Redman) and CEO (Rusty Rodriguez), we have generated the breakthrough technology BioEnsure, a microbial seed treatment that generates climate resilient crops capable of tolerating drought, temperature and salt stress.  ASTs business model is straightforward: we are an R&D company that partners with existing Agricultural distribution and supply chain companies to market and sell our products.  This approach allows us to focus on developing novel technologies to address global problems and distribute through recognized and trusted companies in the Agriculture sector.  Our pricing structure is based on farmers realizing a minimum of 200% ROI.


How did you come up with the idea for AST?

We were studying how plants adapt to hot (65°C) geothermal soils in Yellowstone National Park.  Conventional views were that the plants adapted to the heat stress by making small changes in their DNA over extended periods of time.  However, what we found would change the scientific paradigm on plant adaptation.  It turned out that the geothermal plants did not adapt themselves to heat stress.  The ability of the plants to survive in geothermal soils was dependent on establishing symbiotic associations with microscopic fungi known as fungal endophytes.  It was the fungi that adapted the plants!  This observation led us to look at plants in other natural ecosystems and how they adapted to salt or drought stress.  We found that symbiotic adaptation was common and realized we may be able to develop tools to mitigate impacts of climate change in agriculture and habitat restoration.  In 2008, Regina Redman formed AST and began research to determine the viability of generating climate resilient crops.  Regina’s findings were so fantastic that in 2012, the company was expanded by bringing on myself and Zachery Gray, and we began pursuing investment funding.


How did your past experience influence the creation of the company?

Regina and I come from a basic research arena, working in academic and government institutions.  The discovery of symbiotic adaptation of plants was a great deviation from conventional scientific views about how plants adapt to stress and, as fantastic as it was, it created an impediment to procuring research funds and publishing in peer-reviewed science journals.  So, as a final attempt to move forward with something we thought could have enormous impacts on food & water security globally, we ventured into the entrepreneurial arena.


How has the investment from Element 8 helped you make your company successful?

The investments from Element 8 and others have been critical for completing R&D efforts to over come the hurdles for commercialization of the BioEnsure product line.  This has resulted in AST signing its first distribution agreement with the international seed technology company, INCOTEC.  In addition, coverage of AST’s efforts in the science and popular press has generated significant interest in the Agricultural sector which has opened the door to working with more than 30 agricultural companies that are field testing BioEnsure on several crops on multiple continents.


Pictured: Bottles of AST’s product, BioEnsure.


Where do you see AST three years from today and what does your long-term vision of success look like?

AST is on track to realize sufficient revenues to become solvent, support new product development and expand internationally.  AST has begun field testing in India, Australia, Africa and South America, and became a multinational company in 2016 by establishing AST-India.  Over the next several years, we will establish other independent subsidiaries in other countries that have been historically hot and dry and the need for climate resilient crops is the greatest.  In three years AST should be capturing a significant portion of both the large (commercial) and small scale (organic) farming markets.  In addition, we will be focusing on bringing BioEnsure technology to the people that need it the most, poor rural farmers around the world.   Through the power of our BioEnsure technology, AST expects to enhance the lives of millions of farmers globally.


Where do you think the cleantech market is headed in the next 5 – 10 years?

Addressing global problems that threaten civilization such as climate change, food & water security and sustainability, requires a massive global response.  The only way this can happen is if the future of cleantech involves cross-disciplinary synergy between divergent technologies and collaborations between companies.  We are just beginning to see this happen with high precision agriculture where satellite, robotic, chemical and biological technologies are being combined on single platforms.

What is the most important piece of advice you’ve ever received as an entrepreneur? Operate as a team and look at problems, not as impediments, but as challenges to resolve and learn from.  This will allow you to compartmentalize your stress, sleep well and maintain a positive attitude.


What are you currently reading?

The Wright Brothers by David McCullough


Anything else you want to add?

I would like to thank the investors of Element 8 for their support and trust.  Without you companies like AST, and the hope of generating paradigm changing technologies, are nothing more than a dream.