Skip to main content Skip to secondary navigation

Browse Stanford's available technologies by keyword or collection today by exploring our Techfinder Catalog.

Main content start

Switch Bioworks Joins in White House Climate Initiative across Africa with Novel Fertilizer Technology Started at Stanford

Agritech startup Switch Bioworks recently joined Vice President Kamala Harris and Zambian leaders in a joint initiative between the White House and African nations to address the climate crisis. As part of this effort, the company announced its plans to develop sustainable fertilizer products tailored to African smallholder farmers’ needs in partnership with King Philanthropies. 

Switch’s core mission is to feed the world sustainably by replacing chemical fertilizer with engineered soil microbes that can create bioavailable nitrogen from the air on-site, directly on the roots of plants. Producing fertilizer this way is less energy intensive than traditional fertilizer – with the potential to slash both greenhouse gas emissions and food costs globally. In addition to increased food access, Switch hopes to promote agricultural independence, contribute to an accelerating African bioeconomy, and provide educational projects for students in Kenya. Switch is starting with corn, a widespread food source that makes up approximately 30% of the Kenyan daily caloric intake, and plans to expand work to other relevant crops in the future.

This concept got its “roots” in the lab of Dr. Elizabeth Sattely at Stanford, where Dr. Tim Schnabel, now the CEO at Switch, studied as a Stanford Bio-X fellow. Tim was later encouraged by Dr. Jennifer Cochran and Dr. James Swartz, his undergraduate lab mentor, to form the startup. Niklaus Evitt, another former mentee of Dr. Swartz, joined as a Founding Scientist soon thereafter.  “The total global emissions from fertilizer production and application, if we were to convert those to CO2 equivalents, is about a gigaton,” says Tim, “and that is pretty similar to all the cars in the United States. So, this is a huge problem that we really need to solve”.

As for what’s next, the company is translating their work from the lab to the soil to figure out which local microbe would be best for the job. They will also be talking with local farmers and stakeholders in different areas to ensure they know what features to focus on and plan to work with Kenya’s National Biosafety Authority and the Kenya Plant Inspectorate Service (KEPHIS) to ensure product quality. With continued momentum and additional funding, Switch hopes to expand its social impact programs to reach smallholder farmers across the African continent.

Read more about Switch Bioworks’ activities here: