In-transition AgraQuest hires CEO

By Mike Lee -- Bee Staff Writer

Published Thursday, May 6, 2004

Davis-based biotechnology company AgraQuest Inc. is beefing up for a possible public stock offering with the addition of a new CEO.

Veteran entrepreneur Mike Miille, formerly of Sagres Discovery in Davis, has taken over day-to-day operations of one of the city's signature startups.

AgraQuest founder Pamela Marrone, now full-time chairwoman of the company, will focus on fund raising and industry issues that got too big to handle along with the daily demands of business.

"It's really become impossible to do it all at the same time," she said.

Miille, 50, started as chief operating officer and chief executive officer on Monday, moving his office a few miles and across the railroad tracks in Davis. "It's not very often that you get this kind of opportunity ... in your back yard," he said.

Together, Miille and Marrone will try to position the 52-employee company for an initial public offering, perhaps early next year. Marrone won't peg a date but said momentum is mounting.

"It's anybody's guess as to when the market will be ready," she said. "If you are not ready, you can't go when the time comes."

California is on pace for more IPOs this year than any year since 2000, according to Renaissance Capital's IPOhome.com, which tracks the IPO market nationwide. Excitement over Google's imminent public stock sale and a recovering economy also are good signs for small companies with big dreams.

Founded by Marrone in 1995, AgraQuest makes pest and disease control products that use naturally occurring microorganisms instead of synthetic chemicals. Earlier this year, the company got one of its biggest breaks yet when its plant disease control product Serenade Garden made it onto the shelves of Wal-Mart, the world's largest retailer.

Miille's task is to find operational efficiencies and boost revenue, key components of taking a company public. His job is made easier by AgraQuest's reputation as an environmentally friendly company with a solid niche.

"It is the one area of the pesticide market that is continuing to grow," Miille said. "Our plan is to tap into that and continue to take market share."

The company doesn't make financial numbers public, but Marrone projects 50 percent revenue growth this year and profitability next year.

In February 2003, the company's most recent financing announcement said private investors had put up $9.4 million for working capital, upgrades to the manufacturing plant and product development.

Before joining AgraQuest, Miille was chief operating officer and acting chief financial officer at Sagres, a discovery-stage biotech company with a focus on cancer treatments. His background, however, is in agriculture, and he has a doctorate in agricultural and environmental chemistry from the University of California, Davis.

He's helped lead a handful of companies, including Zoogen Inc., an animal DNA testing company in Davis, where he was president and CEO.

Marrone said she'd known Miille for more than a decade and gave his name to the recruiter she hired to find a new CEO. Turned out, Miille had just the right blend of scientific expertise and business acumen.

"It's really nice to have a known entity," Marrone said. "It was less risky than hiring somebody from outside."


About the Writer The Bee's Mike Lee can be reached at (916) 321-1102 or mflee@sacbee.com.


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• AgraQuest