In a market long dominated by agrochemical giants Dow Chemical Co., BSAF Corp., Monsanto Co. and others, tiny Victor-based BioWorks Inc. is carving a niche as one of the earliest sellers of environmentally friendly, naturally based plant-disease and pest controls.
Joseph Gionta, who directs sales and marketing at the Victor company, largely credits BioWorks president and CEO William Foster for the double-digit revenue growth the company has seen over the last three years.
In its early years during the 1990s, BioWorks sold a single line of biological plant-disease controls. In recent years, Gionta said, it has built a strong customer base among greenhouse growers, home gardeners and growers of high-value specialty crops such as strawberries, blueberries and wine grapes.
When the company started in 1993, Foster said, its founders targeted corn and soybean growers, expecting the crop-farming market to be biological controls' sweet spot.
"They weren't much interested though," said Foster, whom the company hired in the early 2000s to broaden its reach.
BioWorks has since expanded its product lines to include a biological pesticide and broadened its market reach into Canada and Europe. It also recently began to expand its customer base to turf-grass growers and corporate and golf-course groundskeepers.
The company traces its origin to patents won by researchers at Cornell University's New York State Agricultural Experiment Station in Geneva. Cornell licensed the patents to Eastman Kodak Co. in the 1980s and Kodak used them to produce a biological fungicide it branded as F-Stop.
In the early 1990s, Kodak decided to exit the fungicide business and sold the patents back to Cornell.
Three years later new investors bought the rights and started BioWorks. Over the next seven years, the original three partners brought in more than 200 investors.
Artificially manufactured chemical pesticides, fertilizers and fungicides came to dominate agricultural and commercial horticulture markets in the last century. In recent years the appeal of naturally based biological controls has widened, Gionta said.
Though they still account for only a 5 percent slice of the market, concern over pollution and health and environmental issues is helping to fuel new demand for natural products, Gionta said.
Biological controls work as well as chemicals and do not cost any more to use. But they take longer to work, killing pathogens in a few days instead of a few hours, Gionta said. Some growers and home users see that delay as a downside.
Others maintain the delayed action is worth it because biological controls can be less harmful to the environment and pose fewer health risks for agricultural workers. Demand for biological plant-disease and pest controls is growing.
BioWorks' posted revenue growth of 27 percent in 2010, 23 percent in 2011 and 10 percent last year. The company's employment has grown, from 27 in 2010 at its Victor plant and headquarters to 32 now.
"We are continuing to add skilled, professional, motivated, self-driven people that are comfortable working in our culture," he said.
While the firm is growing nicely, increasing demand brings new market challenges, Gionta said. Agribusiness giants such as Monsanto and BSAF have long sold biological controls but are boosting their efforts in the natural pest and disease control market.
"That makes for some pretty intense competition," Gionta said, "but we are seen as an industry leader."
The firm's success would inevitably mean investors would seek an exit strategy, he said-making a sale to a big agribusiness one of the likelier outcomes.
So in 2010, Foster and Gionta, along with Peter Eppeira, director of operations, and John Francis, technical services manager, completed a management buyout, and the four partners became the firm's owners.
"We wanted to control our own destiny," Gionta said.
The Rochester Top 100 program is presented by the Rochester Business Alliance Inc. and KPMG LLP. Launched in 1987, it recognizes the fastest-growing private companies in Greater Rochester. This year's Rochester Top 100 event will be Nov. 6. For more information, go to rochesterbusinessalliance.com.
Provides environmentally responsible, safe and cost-effective products to the horticulture industry.
2012 ranking: 85
Location: Victor, Ontario County
Top executive: President and CEO William Foster
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