It’s a Good Thing: Karn Manhas wants to make farming more green

He's been a tech entrepreneur and B.C.'s youngest MLA. Now the founder and CEO of Terramera wants to change the world of agriculture forever

Karn Manhas produces plant-based pesticides

He’s been a tech entrepreneur and B.C.’s youngest MLA. Now the founder and CEO of Terramera wants to change the world of agriculture forever

Back in the spring of 2009, Karn Manhas was doing what law students do best: argue. His latest venture, a tech consulting firm named Karyon Group, had recently folded in the wake of the 2008-09 economic crisis, and the Port Moody native had decided to go back to school. There he was one day, in between classes at UBC, having a passionate back-and-forth with a fellow student about the upcoming Vancouver Olympics and whether they would be good for the province.

His friend, arguing against, pointed out how each city that’s hosted the Games has had a subsequent infestation of bedbugs—one of many unintended (and unwanted) consequences. “Part of the problem was that the bugs had become resistant to all the synthetic chemicals out there,” Manhas recalls, “and there were no natural predators, or the predators were worse.”

Unwilling to cede the argument, he was convinced there had to be a natural solution and that ultimately the Olympics, unlike bedbugs, didn’t suck. “I might not be a professor of biochemistry, but I knew enough to know that there had to be something that works against these insects,” says Manhas, who received his BSc (biology and biotechnology) from McGill in addition to a JD in law from UBC. “Are there materials that are acutely toxic to these insects that are not toxic to humans and mammals?”

What started as curiosity-fuelled research in the summer of 2009—exploring how a natural extract he’d read about, neem oil, could be used to control insects (“I turned my basement essentially into an illegal lab”)—is now Terramera. The Vancouver-based cleantech company uses plant-based products to combat both pests and disease, for agricultural, professional and home uses.

Its founder falls silent when asked about revenue, but the growth in head count speaks volumes: from just one employee, chief executive Manhas, in 2011, to 17 by 2016 (when Terramera did its Series A financing, bringing in outside investors) to some 130 by early this year, the company is taking off. More than 90 percent of Terramera’s team, says the CEO, now focuses on the agricultural sector.

Arguably the biggest factor in its success has been a proprietary technology known as Actigate, which increases the efficient delivery of its active ingredients. As Manhas explains it, most pesticides act like a shower of Aspirin water: “How long a shower of Aspirin water would you have to take until you got enough medicine?” The Terramera solution is to open up the organism’s pores, and to spray much more lightly. “It stays on you. And it’s designed in a way that actually absorbs.”

The technology is garnering recognition at home and abroad—winning an Innovate BC prize last fall (along with UBC and SFU profs Juli Carrillo and Zamir Punja, respectively), and lifting Terramera onto the 2019 Global Cleantech 100 list.

For Manhas, this desire to change the world goes back to his McGill days. It’s also why he ran for provincial office in 2001, becoming MLA for Port Coquitlam–Burke Mountain at the age of 24. Although he served only one term, Manhas was able to get one of his pet projects—a new tech-focused SFU Surrey campus—approved and built. Looking at the next 10 years, he continues to embrace what he calls “big hairy goals”— including licensing Terramera’s technology to help give global agricultural yields a 20-percent boost by 2027.

“A few years ago, people laughed at us when we said, I think we have the ability to build one of the world’s great companies—and be a new, different player on the block,” says Manhas. “Now people aren’t laughing as much. We have the ability to really change how agriculture works.”

And who would argue with that?