The top of their game
Dr. Peter Keating is widely recognised as Western Australia’s leading consultant across the environmental, horticulture, and agriculture spaces. His extensive knowledge and experience of the state’s flora and fauna, waterbodies and aquifers, soils and geology – combined with his in-depth understanding of the regulatory framework – is unrivalled in the industry.
For over 25 years, Peter has been putting that expertise to use as the Managing Director of Bioscience WA. In collaboration with his multi-disciplined and longstanding team, he has made the company into the leader in the state when it comes to crop nutrition, pest and disease control, composting, and soil microbial ecology.
“We have a reputation for being the only company who can do many specialist things in relation to sustainability of plant production,” Peter says.
Prior to forming Bioscience, Peter had already founded and managed several agricultural biotechnology and environmental businesses. Over the years, he has worked in a range of disciplines, from biochemistry and molecular biology to soil science, water science, plant nutrition, and plant pathology.
He formed his first company the 1980s, while completing his Ph.D. in Biochemistry at the University of Western Australia (UWA). He listed it on the stock exchange while still at school, which he remembers upsetting the university, but which also led to his joining their school of entrepreneurship. That company sponsored university research and started exporting throughout the world, though ultimately the fit proved to be poor.
“I personally failed at adapting to the culture of corporate Australia and the ASX,” Peter recalls. “I found it a bit difficult to have stock brokers and accountants tell me how to run the science. “
Peter walked away, but remained interested in and excited by the sector. Later, when the existing principle service provider, the Department of Agriculture, started losing funding and withdrawing from the field, he saw the opportunity to step in. He formed Bioscience in 1992, with the intention of doing things differently this time around.
“We sought to develop a new model,” he says. “To develop new technologies based not on shareholder funds, but based on the profits we generated from meeting the needs of our client base.”
In the early days, Bioscience mainly provided analytical services and consulting. Around the year 2000, they started doing more research and development for their clients, trying to draw them into new technologies.
“We realized that our clients were more or less doing R&D, but doing it in a fairly haphazard and undisciplined way,” Peter says. “We thought if we could provide some scientific rigour and discipline, they could advance faster.”
In both arenas – technical services and R&D – they grew the company almost exclusively through referrals. They earned those referrals by “delivering the goods,” according to Peter, “in a very cost effective way.”
“We do that, firstly, by understanding what the client’s needs are,” he explains. “Secondly, we do it through minimizing their costs – through understanding R&D grants, tax concessions, anything available to them to save them money.”
“Of course, there’s a bit of personal relationship building there as well,” he says, Kjust like with any business.”
The team at Bioscience typically forms very close-knit relationships with their clients. They tend to engage with them on a fortnightly, if not weekly basis. They visit their farm, collect tissue for study, and generally “take a look around.” The last part is deceptively important, in Peter’s opinion, because they often see things that their client’s overlook.
“If you look at something every day, you tend to miss some of the detail that someone who looks at it every week might not,” he explains. “Especially if that someone has pretty experienced eyes, like we do.”
During those regular visits, in addition to performing their routine analysis, the Bioscience team also usually checks in on their ongoing research programs and obtains results from their ongoing trials. For example, if the clients might have a new plant, Bioscience is likely training it to be more productive, and they will see how that’s going.
Historically, their clients have benefited greatly from these longstanding and synergistic relationships.
“We have helped them remain profitable,” Peter says. “We have helped them remain on the cutting edge.”
Staying on that cutting edge is especially important in the fresh food sector in Australia, which is extremely competitive, and which is disadvantaged in the world market by the lack of agricultural subsidies. Companies in that sector have to ensure their food is practically perfect, because it’s not usually the cheapest option, and because “one spot, one blemish on the tomato, and the buyer won’t get it.” Bioscience helps those companies achieve that perfection.
“We help them stay at the top of their game,” Peter says.
The great unknown
One of the many ways Bioscience helps clients remain at the forefront of their industry is by continually bringing them new and innovative technologies. For example, in order to combat the decline of rainfall in Western Australia – which has dropped about 20 per cent in the last 25 years – they have introduced clients to advanced soil monitoring software, which has helped them conserve their vital water resources.
“Almost all intensive agriculture intensely relies on irrigation and water,” Peter explains. “In the southwest of WA we have had one of the first impacts of climate change, which is a decline in rainfall. That means there is enormous pressure on aquifers. Most of the irrigation is from groundwater. The aquifers are declining so there is enormous pressure on retaining that water, both from a regulatory point of view and a reliability point of view.”
“So we have adopted new technology to monitor soil moisture, soil electrical conductivity, and soil temperatures,” he says. “Most of our large clients now use this technology.”
That technology was actually developed in South Australia, by a company called Sentek Technologies. It allows growers to open an application on their smartphones and see the status of their fertiliser and how much water they’re using. They can then make day-to-day decisions on how much they irrigate and how they fertilize their plants.
“That saves them an enormous amount of water and also a considerably amount of fertiliser,” Peter says. “They’ve realized that past practice has been a bit of wasteful, and they’ve very quickly changed.”
Other technologies Bioscience has developed in-house. Over the last 10 years, much of that development has been focused on soil microbiome technology. They have invested millions, conducted field trials throughout the state, and created several patented technologies.
The soil microbiome – or “the great unknown,” as Peter calls it – is the combination of bacteria and fungi that “stands in the interface between the mineral soil and the living plant root, which are only ever in contact indirectly.” The team at Bioscience believes that understanding the soil microbiome is the key to sustainability in agriculture. In the last couple years, the rest of the industry has slowly caught up to that belief. And in the last six months, academia has started to recognise Bioscience’s trailblazing.
“Other academics have looked at our work and said ‘Wow’ and have invited us to join various international initiatives on soil microbiome technology,” Peter says. “That’s been very satisfying.”
Staying in front
Today, Bioscience is a technical service provider to the agriculture, horticulture, arboriculture and extractive industries. Their analytical and plant diagnostic services include testing water, soils, and leaf tissue for about everything testable, including elemental analysis, nutrient availability, pathogen levels, geotechnical parameters, microbial diversity. Their customers include most local governments, most waste managers, and most players in the extractive industry.
In addition to those technical services, Bioscience also continues to pursue their signature passion, which is providing R&D services to advanced growers. As an AusIndustry registered Research Service Provider, they allow those clients to claim R&D tax concessions. Their customer base in that arena has remained relatively small over the years, but they have been extremely loyal. Many have remained loyal for 20-plus years, and are leaders in their sectors.
Bioscience enjoys similarly longstanding relationships with the leading suppliers of laboratory consumables, and the suppliers of the raw materials used to manufacture fertilisers and soil conditioners. Air Liquide, for example, is one of the world leaders in gases, technologies, and services to various industries, and Bioscience has been working with them for much of their company’s life.
Moving forward, Peter hopes to continue to build on those lasting relationships – with both suppliers and clients.
Peter also hopes to continue to commercialise new patented technologies and products related to soil science and enhanced plant nutrition. He believes that continued innovation will fuel the company’s growth – that, plus “dogged persistence,” he says.For more on Bioscience WA, their team, and their range of products and services, visit https://biosciencewa.com/