North America’s sustainable crop protection sector continues to make progress. Following last week’s story about Crop Enhancement’s new CEO and FarmShield’s efforts to reduce herbicide and fungicide use, Food & Farming Technology then received news about an exciting AI-empowered start-up backed by the influential Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation; and a biofungicide currently under review with the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).
Woburn, Massachusetts-based Enko Chem Inc, which uses AI to find new molecular compounds to make pesticides sustainable and safe, officially launched last Friday (26 June, 2020) following a US$45 million Series B finance round, led by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and new investors Finistere Ventures, Novalis LifeSciences, Germin8 Ventures and TO Ventures Food. The company now boasts over US$66 million in total funding.
The traditional crop protection industry faces a number of critical challenges, including rising regulatory standards, higher performance requirements, and growing pest resistance. At a time when more than 600 pest species have developed some form of resistance and threaten yield losses of up to 40%, Enko and its backers believe the company’s pioneering new approach offers real hope to the whole farming community.
“We’re committed to ensuring that smallholder farming communities in sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia have access to affordable innovations that can safely and sustainably control crop pests and diseases, which are likely to intensify and spread into new areas due to climate change,” said Dr. Vipula Shukla, senior program officer, agriculture, Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.
“Smallholder farmers are the backbone of the agricultural economy in these regions, so working with innovative companies like Enko Chem to equip them with better ways to fight these threats is crucial to building their resilience to climate impacts on food and feed production,” Vipula continued.
Founded in 2017, Enko uses advanced pharmaceutical discovery and predictive analytics tools in combination with DNA-encoded libraries to develop small-molecule pesticides that specifically target the pest without damaging nearby crops, threatening farm labourers or harming beneficial insect species. The company’s first solutions are now progressing toward field testing and regulatory trials.
“Resistance issues have been plaguing agriculture production for years, but the industry has been slow to innovate,” commented Jacqueline Heard, Enko Chem’s CEO. “Delivering safer, lower use-rate products that provide good returns for farmers needs to be the rule and not the exception,” she continued.
“We are leveraging powerful drug discovery technologies to build a deep pipeline of solutions at unprecedented speed as we strive to lead this US$60 billion industry into a new era of sustainable agriculture. We are thrilled that our novel approach, which builds in safety measures from the start to keep us ahead of future needs, has attracted support from this top-tier group of investors.”
EPA evaluates new biofungicide
Meanwhile Agbiome, a leader in the discovery and development of new technology from microbes, has submitted a novel biofungicide, Theia, to the US EPA for review. Pending EPA registration, Theia will be the second biological fungicide that AgBiome has brought to market in the last three years.
Theia, along with AgBiome’s first product Howler, was developed using its proprietary GENESIS discovery platform, which enables AgBiome to efficiently capture and screen the company’s diverse, unique microbial collection for agtech applications. Since microbial biofungicides contain living organisms, their modes of action differ from those of synthetic fungicides, making Theia a unique player in the fight against foliar plant diseases.
“AgBiome leads in the development of innovative biopesticides to overcome growing pest resistance,” said Scott Uknes, Co-CEO of AgBiome. “Our product pipeline is strong, which symbolises the sustained growth we are prioritizing at AgBiome. From new hires to new product development, AgBiome is working tirelessly to expand our reach – executing on the company’s mission to feed the world responsibly.”
AgBiome, (which has also received significant investment from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to develop pest control solutions for sub-Saharan African nations), is located in the Research Triangle Park, Durham, North Carolina, USA. The company has already established partnerships with a number of leading agricultural companies to accelerate its discovery process and better access global markets.