20 years ago, the catalan biologist Rafael Juncosa decided to develop, manufacture and sell environmental friendly products when these initiatives were more considered as main causes of environmental NGOs than business opportunities. That bet turned into what today is Futureco Bioscience SL, one of the most recognized companies in the research, development, production and commercialization of bio-pesticides and bio-stimulants globally. We interview Juncosa, founder and CEO of the company, as the first interviewed of a series that will portray the company staff and other industry actors for Leaf, the digital magazine of Futureco Bioscience.
Leaf Editor (LE): Have you become what you wanted when you were a boy?
Rafael Juncosa (RJ): Probably yes, as I wanted to start a company or create something that could be relevant for society, or with a social commitment, further than just seeking a business opportunity, to adduce something to society based on knowledge.
Something with consciousness.
Something that could be at the same time creative besides providing personal satisfaction. A transparent business that could allow me to be comfortable with myself. Knowing you sell a product that in some way is contributing to a better quality of life, both for who buys it and for the end user -the end consumer of fruits and vegetables treated with our products-, healthier and free of debris.
At the time when environmentalism was not as widespread.
Twenty years ago it was unthinkable to believe that there was a business opportunity so clear in environmental friendly products. Large multinationals were engaged in the synthesis of agrochemicals. It's now when they realize there is a real business opportunity. I don't think they might invest in it due to an environmental sense of responsibility as to their business expediency.
Today is favorable context for investing in agrobiologicals.
Unlike us, as we did it in an unfavorable context and in a hostile environment, at that time when you were going with the "Eco" argument and it sounded like a hippie's dream, too much flower power. Where does this crazy man go selling these stories?
The only people who were aware of it were grass growers, because they wanted to put in their crops products that would not affect them in their consumption or give toxic side effects. We had at the time a meeting with a guru of Marijuana cultivation. He was an American. Interesting.
When and how do you decide to start Futureco Bioscience?
When the company where I worked in decided to make a staff regulation. I only had two options: setting something by my own, built on my skills; or looking for a job in other companies and do more of the same. I chose the first option.
The context of the early nineties in Spain was not that favorable.
It was a time of crisis and change. Especially changes at the pharmaceutical regulations' level. Many products were withdrawn. One of them was one of the most important products of the company I worked for. They were leaders in the marketing of a product for the nervous system that drew from cow brain. Soon came the mad cow crisis and that one and other products both became taboo and banned. The 80 % of the turnover of the company came from that product, so they adjusted the staff. It was good for me, if that wouln't have taken place Futureco Bioscience could have never existed.
Did you start alone?
Did you combine it with any other job?
No. At first it was very frustrating. You start with zero structure and a very low investment, and you see that every time you ask for money you find a wall after another. Also, you realize that maybe it is not the right time for that kind of concept of product or idea for success. Some people see you as if you believed you were a prophet, much later, who would have thought that so many people would attend the congress of ABIM and the market would grow with so much health and strength as it's growing?
Big companies did not predict it.
Big companies had their model that worked. If Bayer had gotten into this business 20 years ago, probably this business would not be so much fun or so well perceived. Surely it would have changed consumer awareness, and would have aroused not as much sympathy as now, as it wouldn't be associated with the clean way of doing things. Just as a matter of public perception towards multinationals.
I must recognize that it helps to be an SME that grows at a reasonable rate and that comes with products like NOFLY based on a fungus that kills a fly and a discourse of transparency and commitment.
A fungus that kills a fly, does that work?
That was the most common question. Moreover, if you went to sell it a few years ago to a farmer, his answer was: "I do not want that, please give me a strong chemical that kills all the possible pests, give me the most toxic one"
Now things have changed.
It's logical. Changes are driven by the consumer. Environmental awareness was not so spread yet. You don't have to be such a visionary to realize that this attitude would be unsustainable and sooner or later that change and need to care for the environment and health would come.
Did you know that the environmentalist dream would become a demand from society and worldwide governments?
Yes. We realized 20 years ago. Large companies are now beginning. They start 15 years after we started thinking about NOFLY. We have 15 years of experience in biopesticide products. Big companies cannot afford the time with all the money they have, what they can do is buy other smaller companies that have agrobiological inputs like us.
Do you think that the current context is favorable although the registration processes to commercialize these products are too long?
Time and barriers of registration are both changing. Although the requirements are the same for approving a product to enter the market, it is becoming increasingly easier. The time it takes is shortening, and not only in Europe, where the process is the longest. In the United States, South America and Morocco registration is shorter. In countries like Peru, when a chemical pesticide takes from 2 to 3 years to register, a biopesticide takes only eight months to be registered. Morocco also prioritizes agrobiologicals on agrochemicals. There is an institutional awareness in specific countries to facilitate registration , marketing and use of these products.
The required evolution in the mindset of administrations.
They are banning products to protect consumers and the environment. Governments are more aware and regulate the issue of registration. Until now it was a problem, because product registration requires an investment and you have to wait eight years to sell the product, in the case of Europe. It was unsustainable.
This justifies that the prices are slightly higher than chemicals.
Currently you cannot compare a chemical product that did not perform an accurate R&D at a price level. A biopesticide that is registered today is a product that requires more R&D and a higher investment in knowledge and time. The price will be adjusted when there is an economy of scale. This means that the biopesticides market has to represent globally from the 3% of today to a 30% tomorrow. Prices will surely fall, but the fact prices are slightly higher is justified. Also, responsible consumption will promote also the market grows.
What has been the most difficult of all these years as an entrepreneur and businessman?
The hardest thing has been the lack of support from the Spanish government, that has never favored a hotbed of innovative companies that could provide knowledge and value to society and the country. Spain has always been a culture of easy and cheap money, with the slogan "I invest now and on the afternoon and I have one thousand percent return." This explains why we have more culture of services than R&D. This has been the problem. If they do not show belief in your innovation capacity, how can you demand to the banks and financing agencies to help you launch a biotech company?
About ten years ago there was an attempt to invest in R&D in Spain. Today the cuts are leading the CSIC agency to bankruptcy.
All they did ten years ago was to foster entrepreneurship in biotechnology of startups coming out of university departments. Public money invested in companies that later were going to be private. Small companies, which turned into your competence, they had developed its products with public money and then they tried to place them in the market. The entrepreneur that didn't get out of the university had very low chances, although he or she could have talent, knowledge and an innovative philosophy. For people like me that was not easy at all.
What is the greatest satisfaction in your career?
In confidence, the best is how the story has changed, from when we knocked door to door of large companies, explaining how good our products could be in a future, to the moment when are those large companies that come knocking on your door to propose serious alliances, collaborations and projects. It is really satisfying.
What is the next thing you want for Futureco Bioscience?
Our short and medium term dream is to become a reference laboratory globally. The largest lab in Europe and one of the most important globally in means of research and development of biopesticides, a kind of Mecca if you want to do a PhD in the subject. Being a reference laboratory.
Are you already working on it?
Yes, it is a step we must take. Regardless of the agreements and collaborations that come with other companies on a commercial level, we must continue to grow in line with our own efforts, without waiting. Futureco Bioscience is self-financed and continues on this growth strategy in R&D and at a commercial level, to follow the path that we started. A leading company at all levels. That's the goal. Of course, not alone, Futureco Bioscience is a great team of very professional people. The company is how it is thanks to the efforts and dedication of that team, who in one way or the other form and are part of the company.
To conclude, do you recommend us a book?
I recommend the book I'm reading now: " Of Mice and Men", by John Steinbeck, which tells the story of two friends who search for a job together, and when they hire them they have to be both recruited. One of them is physically imposing, but is not too intelligent. The other seems defenseless, but is much more awake. It's a story that gives some air and humanity to a stark reality which is that of finding employment in a society in crisis.
I also recommend "Missionaries, mercenaries and misfits", by Russell and Patricia Wolford, two friends who lived in Somalia when it was the Paris of the East African Coast, before the civil war. They lived there when it was all glamour, just before the pirates destroyed the country.
And what about a movie recommendation?
The last movie I've seen and have found shocking is "Olympus has fallen", about how the world shudders if the U.S. is shaken. It is interesting for not thinking.