Enko Chem, which harnesses machine learning to help farmers sustainably protect their crops from pests and disease, has raised $45 million. Founder and CEO Jacqueline Heard said the funds will be used to expand the Boston-based startup’s technology platform and ready its pipeline of crop protection solutions for field testing and regulatory trials. Enko also plans to continue pursuing studies and collaborations with industry partners as part of its broader mission.
Protecting crops from pests is no easy feat. A recent study showed that worldwide, over 600 species of insects and fungi have developed a level of pesticide resistance, threatening losses in yield of between 10.1% and 40.9% for crops like rice, corn, potatoes, and soybeans. In the U.S. alone, insecticides are used to protect crops on approximately 45 million acres, and it’s estimated yields would decrease by 40% to 50% without treatment.
Enko, which was founded in 2017 and incubated by Anterra Capital, a venture fund focused on startups addressing food supply chain challenges, aims to discover safe, economical solutions that promote sustainable staple crop production. The company produces large discovery data sets that are amenable to machine learning and AI models. In tandem with predictive analytics tools, these data sets ostensibly decrease design cycles and bolster success in finding safe, novel, and effective compounds more quickly and cost-effectively than rivals.
Enko uses information about protein targets and pests to inform its product development strategy, sourcing DNA-encoded libraries containing an array of 120 billion compounds. It claims an experimental approach allows it to get an early read on both safety and effectiveness and deliver machine learning- and AI-driven improvements in predictability. Enko says it’s able to cast a broad net and survey hundreds of billions of small molecules while narrowing the scope of the solutions it pursues.
These predictive analytics tools enable Enko to focus on compounds with the highest likelihood of commercial success, explained a spokesperson. “We use a suite of predictive analytics tools across our pipeline and for every target. We will have billions of data points about target binding, target inhibition, bioactivity, and safety that can be used to train ensembles of machine learning models and heuristics,” the spokesperson told VentureBeat via email. “It would take a very large, concerted, and expensive effort for us to collect a similar training set for a single target using traditional high throughput screening methods. For example, we can use [this] data and models to broadly understand the features that separate compounds that are most likely to be potent, safe, and active in the whole organism versus not. Our database will also grow with time, increasing the power and value of our approach.”
Among other products, Enko is developing insecticides, fungicides, and herbicides for staple crop types in the U.S. and globally. Heard notes that the yields of most fruit and vegetable crops increase 50% to 90% with fungicides and that over 90% of U.S. cropland is now treated with herbicides, an uptick driven by the popularization of no-till farming. No-till farming decreases harmful soil erosion but often isn’t practical without protection against invasive species.
Enko’s goal is to develop alternatives to suites of chemicals like Roundup, which the International Agency for Research on Cancer classified as a “probable carcinogenic” in 2015. Beyond the health risks, overuse of any one chemical eventually allows more resistant pests to flourish, which results in crop damage and leads to food waste. That’s why in addition to its ongoing pilots, Enko hopes to offer some pesticides as a low- or no-cost option to small farms, potentially via a Gates Foundation partnership.
Enko’s recent round was led by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, with participation from existing investors Anterra Capital and Rabo Food & Agri Innovation Fund. It included new investors Finistere Ventures, Novalis LifeSciences, Germin8 Ventures, and TO Ventures Food. The series B follows a $7.5 million venture round in July 2018 and brings the company’s total raised to $66 million.
As part of the raise, Navalis LifeSciences founder and chair Marijn Dekkers and Finistere Ventures cofounder and partner Spencer Maughan will join Enko’s board of directors. “Small molecule crop protection is a critical lever to sustaining agricultural yields and minimizing land use, but innovation hasn’t kept pace with farmers’ needs and consumers’ safety concerns,” Dekkers told VentureBeat. “By using the unique techniques that led to a paradigm shift in small molecule drug discovery, Enko is now emerging as a new leader in innovation for the next generation of small molecule crop protection products that deliver on the promise of safety and sustainability.”