Enko Chem, which uses machine learning to help farmers protect their crops from pests and diseases, has raised $ 45 million. Founder and CEO Jacqueline Heard said the funds would be used to expand the technology platform of the Boston-based startup and prepare its pipeline of crop protection solutions for field tests and regulatory trials. Enko also plans to continue studying and collaborating with industry partners as part of its larger mission.
Protecting plants from pests is no easy task. A recent one study showed that over 600 species of insects and fungi worldwide have developed threatening pesticide resistance losses Yield between 10.1% and 40.9% for crops such as rice, corn, potatoes and soybeans. In the United States alone, insecticides are used to protect plants in an area of approximately 45 million acres, and the estimated yields would decrease 40% to 50% without treatment.
Enko was founded in 2017 and founded by Anterra Capital, a risk fund that focuses on startups that address the challenges of the food supply chain. The aim is to find safe and economical solutions that promote the sustainable production of basic food. The company creates large discovery records suitable for machine learning and AI models. Together with predictive analytics tools, these data sets are said to shorten design cycles and support success in finding faster, less expensive, secure, novel, and effective connections than competitors.
Enko uses protein target and pest information to inform its product development strategy and to obtain DNA-encoded libraries with a range of 120 billion compounds. It is claimed that an experimental approach enables an early overview of security and effectiveness and machine learning and AI-controlled improvements in predictability. Enko says it is able to cast a wide net and examine hundreds of billions of small molecules while limiting the scope of the solutions it pursues.
These predictive analytics tools enable Enko to focus on connections that are most likely to be commercially successful, a spokesman said. “We use a number of predictive analytics tools in our pipeline and for every goal. We will have billions of target, inhibition, bioactivity, and security data points that can be used to train ensembles of models and heuristics for machine learning, ”the spokesman told VentureBeat via email. “It would take a very large, concerted, and expensive effort 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 understand the features that separate connections that are most likely to be effective, safe, and active throughout the organism compared to not. Our database will also grow over time and increase the performance and value of our approach. "
Among other things, Enko develops insecticides, fungicides and herbicides for staple foods in the USA and worldwide. Heard notes that most fruit and vegetable crops with fungicides are growing 50% to 90% and that over 90% of the US arable land is now being treated with herbicides, an increase driven by the popularity of direct sowing. Direct sowing reduces harmful soil erosion, but is often impractical without protection against invasive species.
Enko's goal is to develop alternatives to chemical suites such as Roundup, which the International Agency for Research on Cancer classified in 2015 as “probably carcinogenic”. Beyond the health risks, the overuse of a chemical will ultimately make more resistant pests thrive, damage crops and lead to food waste. For this reason, Enko hopes to be able to offer some farms as an inexpensive or free option for small farms in addition to its ongoing pilot projects, possibly through a partnership with the Gates Foundation.
The latest round of Enko was led by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation with the participation of existing investors Anterra Capital and Rabo Food & Agri Innovation Fund. These included new investors such as Finistere Ventures, Novalis LifeSciences, Germin8 Ventures and TO Ventures Food. Series B follows a $ 7.5 million venture round in July 2018, bringing the company's total to $ 66 million.
As part of the increase, Navalis LifeSciences founder and chairman Marijn Dekkers and Finistere Ventures co-founder and partner Spencer Maughan will join Enko's board of directors. "Plant protection for small molecules is a crucial lever to maintain agricultural yields and minimize land use, but the innovation has not kept pace with farmers' needs and consumer safety concerns," Dekkers told VentureBeat. "By using the unique techniques that have led to a paradigm shift in the discovery of low molecular weight medicines, Enko is now developing into a new innovation leader for the next generation of low molecular weight crop protection products that deliver the promise of safety and sustainability."