‘The farmer’s toolbox is diminishing’ – Entrepreneur of the Year

The 2020 EY (Ernst and Young) Entrepreneur of the Year Awards were held last month, with the founder and chief executive of an Irish agro-chemical company scooping the overall award.

Nicola Mitchell, from Co. Cork, is the founder of Life Scientific, a company that specialises in generic (or ‘off-patent’) fungicides, herbicides, insecticides and plant growth regulators.

The business began as a University College Dublin (UCD) campus company in 1995 and, for the first roughly 20 years of its existence, offered research and development services in the agro-chemical industry, working with some of the biggest players, such as Bayer and Syngenta.

Since then, the company has moved into ‘cloning’ off-patent chemical products and distributing them for retail.

Speaking to AgriLand, Mitchell explained: “It’s unique in the world. After setting up in 1995, I knew we needed to develop capability. I knew there was a lot of complexity that we could become adept at if we focused and just did nothing but that.

“We always had in mind to build a product company, and spent 20 years as a service company just to learn our trade and to be of value,” she added.

The company launched its first product into France in 2012 and since then its earnings has increased many times over. The company is now planning to expand further, aiming for the North and South American markets.

Explaining the way Life Scientific develops it products, Mitchell outlined: “A multinational [company] will invent a molecule. Given that there is a ‘patent cliff’, those first primary molecule patents will expire… Once a molecule patent expires it is ‘off-patent’.

[The multinationals] will try to hold on to market share, and they do that through other barriers.

These other barriers primarily consist of secondary patents on the original molecule, which may be taken out on the process to create the molecule; an ingredient in a molecule; the use of a molecule; or an impurity in a molecule.

She cited an example of one company that, after taking out an original patent on a product, subsequently went on to take out around 1,200 secondary patents on the same product.

“It’s like a smokescreen,” Mitchell noted.

Because of all this, research into patents is as important as the scientific research itself.

“With what we’ve been able to do through the reverse engineering technology, at least we know that when we pick a product off the market, we will now at a molecular level what it comprises and at least we then know which patent we have to manage. Otherwise we’ll just stumble upon them and it’s a minefield. It can be very costly and fatal,” she explained.

Mitchell highlighted that “secondary barriers” put up by the multinational companies are easier to avoid than the initial first molecule patents “where you just have to sit tight”.

The Life Scientific founder said she aims to improve competitiveness in a market that she argued “looks very much like an oligopoly of very big players”.

We’re pushing back the envelope of space in which they tell us we can operate to get competition to farmers earlier, through understanding the law; understanding the science; and especially through understanding the regulation.

“I know we’re a minnow, but equally there is a voice for competition, and we need it… Yes, we need innovation, we need these big companies – without them we’re nothing – but equally also when the time comes we need competition also,” Mitchell highlighted.

“In terms of the types of products, it is a highly regulated industry. You can see at a European level, the farmer’s toolbox is diminishing, so there’s huge challenges.

“Those big companies will be part of the solution to a more competitive, more innovative and more sustainable future… But we don’t take the dogma of the way they work… We don’t tend to assume what they tell us,” she added.

Mitchell says her aim for Life Scientific is to “build an Irish multinational”.

“I really want to build a multinational that sees Irish people going out in the world, building global policy, and building global and corporate structures.