Pam Marrone was the driving force behind AgraQuest, a California supplier of innovative biological pest management that — at one point — raised more than $62 million in venture capital. However, a “cram-down” deal in 2005 prevented her from ever making a profit.
“I didn’t make any money on that,” Marrone told me in a recent podcast interview. “Even though I was the founder and there for 11 years.”
Marrone was in the midst of taking the company public on Nasdaq right before the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attack (she was scheduled to fly to New York City the following day).
“Our bankers were right across the street and the lawyers for the deal were in the south tower,” she added.
Once the markets closed in the wake of the tragedy, the deal didn’t happen. Afterwards, one of AgraQuest’s existing investors orchestrated a deal that depleted Marrone’s stake in the company.
“That means they re-engineer the company so that it wiped out my founder’s stock,” Marrone said. “And so I didn’t get any money when the company was sold.”
AgraQuest has since been acquired by Bayer for $425 million.
When I asked Marrone how upset she must have been at not being able to enjoy the fruits of her labor, she gave a response that all professionals would be wise to remember: “I’m an entrepreneur, which means I’m resilient, optimistic and passionate about what I do.”
Marrone pledged to make it up on the next one. Well, she certainly did.
Her namesake firm, Marrone Bio Innovations (MBI), is the culmination of her life’s work — discovering new pesticide products that are “environmentally responsible.”
The mission stems from Marrone’s Connecticut upbringing, where she studied plant- and wildlife across her 40-acre home.
As a kid, she learned at the knee of her mother, an organic gardener who “had a fit” when a chemical Marrone’s father used to control pests had an adverse side effect.
“Honey bees and lady beetles — all the good bugs were killed,” Marrone said. The incident foreshadowed what would become a major news topic today, and inspired Marrone to not only launch companies in this field, but shape global ideas and initiatives around how food should be grown in a healthy way.
“Pam, as an energetic and deeply knowledgeable pioneer in this field, was influential in helping us understand the potential of harnessing biology to serve both agriculture and the environment,” says MBI chief sustainability officer Keith Pitts. The two met when Pitts was a government official under the Clinton Administration.
“Pam has been putting these ideas into practice, creating value for farmers, the environment and the rapidly expanding biopesticide and biostimulant sectors,” he added. “Her leadership, starting from thirty years ago, was instrumental in setting the stage for significant growth, enthusiasm and food chain adoption of biologicals we are now experiencing in the United States, and recently seeing take hold worldwide.”
But pest management is just one aspect of Marrone’s storied career. For our podcast interview, she addressed a wide variety of topics including medical marijuana and how users should be mindful of toxins in the edibles. We also discussed Silicon Valley, and the pitfalls many of her fellow entrepreneurs and investors too often face.
Marrone also pointed to the progress being made at Cornell as a sign of hope. As a trustee, she was there for the university’s recent Roosevelt Campus inauguration.
“It’s really a pioneering campus,” she said, citing how — for example — each building is equipped with solar panels. “There’s a different culture being developed here… It’s going to be more diverse with a lot more women and that will be more attractive to more people.”
Much of Marrone’s optimism also stems from the fact that startups are in much better position now than they were decades ago.
“We got a lot of advantages from the Jobs Act,” she said, citing the new rules that were put in place under the 2012 Jumpstart Our Business Startups (JOBS) Act signed by President Barack Obama. The ability to crowdfund thanks to the law has been helpful not just to her but all U.S. entrepreneurs, she explained.
“There’s so much help for entrepreneurs now that I didn’t have,” she says, citing the proliferation of startup accelerators. “It’s a wonderful time to be an entrepreneur.”