Discovery of a Disruptive Technology for Agriculture by Dent Associates Ltd
Azotic Technologies Ltd is a company established in 2012 to commercially develop an invention from University of Nottingham by Professor Ted Cocking FRS that enables any crop to fix nitrogen from the air and thereby, reduce the need for polluting nitrogen fertilizers. The technology has the potential to transform global agriculture: improving food security for billions of people, reducing nitrogen fertilizer pollution as a greenhouse gas and nitrate runoff into our waterways, while improving the efficiency of crop production for the farmer. Almost too good to be true: so how was this exciting invention discovered and Azotic Technologies established to develop and commercialise the technology?
A casual conversation with Sir Professor John Beddington, the former Government Chief Scientific Adviser, in early 2011 led David Dent to undertake a review of scientific output from our UK Universities and Research Institutes to determine if there were any exciting emerging technologies in the fields of food security, waste and water management that could have a transformative and global impact within a 5-10 year time frame. David expected to be able to produce a report on the top 100 technologies that were going to change the world. However, after an exhaustive review of scientific research programmes, grants, technical bulletins, publications and press releases, David was only able to identify 75 latent technologies that had any potential at all. Number one among these however, and with a potential far in excess of any of the others on the list, was the research, publication and patent of Professor Cocking at Nottingham University on the intracellular colonisation of the nitrogen-fixing bacteria Gluconacetobacter diazotrophicus in a range of crops. If the outputs of this research could be successfully transferred to, and proven in the field then it genuinely offered the opportunity for transforming global agriculture. Second on the list was the research at the John Innes Centre to genetically manipulate cereal crops to produce root nodules with associated rhizobia bacteria to achieve nitrogen fixation in cereals. However, the latter did not secure first place because it was much further from practical utility and would necessitate an exhaustive regulatory process. Realising the potential value of the review to our business; a list of the top latent technologies in the UK, Dent Associates never formally published the report.
A bar in Bangkok provided the venue for the next step in the process that would ultimately see the establishment of Azotic Technologies. David organised for UKTI in March 2011, a workshop in Thailand on Innovation, industry and investment: Thailand and UK Collaboration. Having contacts at the Business School in Nottingham, David invited the University to send a representative to the workshop. They sent Dr Alan Burbidge, at that time a Licensing Executive in the University’s IP Management and Commercial Team. Following the event, relaxing over a beer with Alan in the hotel bar the subject moved round to Professor Cocking’s invention on nitrogen fixation. Alan was able to explain that the University was looking to license the rights to commercialisation from their patent on this invention to a suitable commercial partner, but had yet to identify someone suitable. David offered the services of Dent Associates to undertake an evaluation of the commercial potential of the invention and to identify potential commercial partners.
Dent Associates Ltd undertook the consultancy for the University of Nottingham betweem April and May 2011 during which time David met with Ted Cocking and his postdoc Dr Phil Stone to learn more about the nitrogen-fixing bacteria Gluconacetobacter diazotrophicus (Gd), its ability under the right conditions to colonise plants intracellularly, to spread throughout and fix nitrogen. The more David learned the greater his conviction that the invention had real commercial potential and the Consultancy Report submitted in June 2011 identified a number of potential commercial partners.
A pivotal moment for the subsequent development of Azotic Technologies was the email sent by David on 23rd August 2011 to Peter Blezard former CEO of Plant Impact plc who was looking for a new project. Davids email described Ted’s invention and its potential – “If you want a new technology to work with in agriculture this is potentially revolutionary …”. A follow-up phonecall on the Friday started the process rolling for what would eventually become Azotic Technologies. In November 2011 Peter and David presented a proposal to the University of Nottingham for NewCo Hemsley (based on the name of the meeting room at the University in which David, Peter and Alan Burbidge met), a company to license and commercially develop the technology based on patent of Ted’s invention. NewCo Hemsley morphed into Azotic Technologies which was formerly registered as a company in January 2012.
And why Azotic Technologies? The element Nitrogen was discovered by the French chemist Lavoisier. He named it ‘Azote’ meaning ‘without life’, because of its inert nature. With nitrogen-fixing bacteria known as diazotrophs, derived from the word ‘Azote’, it was a simple leap of imagination to the name Azotic and hence, Azotic Technologies Ltd.
Dr David Dent, Principal Consultant of Dent Associates is a Founder Director and Chief Technical Officer of Azotic Technologies Ltd.