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A Gates-backed crop health startup with $68.2 million in funding has moved to Mystic

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Mystic — A crop health company that is applying innovations of the pharmaceutical industry to combat pests and diseases — with $68.2 million in investor funding — has moved from Massachusetts to Mystic, and is operating in the former Monsanto facility on Maritime Drive.

Enko Chem Inc. announced its new headquarters and research facilities in a news release earlier this month, and CEO Jacqueline Heard shared more in a Zoom interview Thursday. Enko bought the facility at 62 Maritime Drive in July and moved employees to Mystic in August.

"We were a little bit worried about moving out of the Boston area with retaining talent, but when people came down and saw the facility and saw the area, we had a very high retention," Heard said. Employees are doing molecular biology research, machine learning and modeling, safety studies and administrative functions.

There are about 30 people in the Mystic facility, and Heard said she intends to double her workforce in the next five years. Enko is currently hiring for various positions.

Heard said the decision to move "was driven a lot by the facility, which is really state of the art." It is more than 80,000 square feet, including 33,000 square feet of greenhouse space. She said it was difficult to find research organizations to contract out Enko's biology testing, whereas having this much greenhouse space allows Enko to do it internally.

The news release also noted that the greenhouse space will allow for faster experimentation before conducting field trials this year.

Heard, who has a Ph.D. in biology, also has a connection to the facility: She worked for Monsanto for 12 years before moving into the venture capital world. She invested in small agricultural startups and joined the Boston-based Anterra Capital.

Heard founded Enko in 2017, and Anterra is one of the investors. Enko publicly launched last June after securing $45 million in a series B round of financing, led by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

"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," Dr. Vipula Shukla, senior program officer for agriculture at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, said in a news release.

That brought Enko's total funding at the time to $66 million. Enko has since secured $2.2 million from Connecticut Innovations, a venture capital firm.

"It's a great reuse of the facility that's already down there," Peter Longo, senior managing director of investments at CI, said Friday. "They're bringing jobs with them here to Connecticut, so part of our mission is to create tech-based jobs here in Connecticut, so that was of interest to us, as well."

He also said Enko had some early commercial partnerships that gave it "some market validation," and a strong investor group.

What does Enko do?

Agriculture is "under enormous pressure today," Heard said. "There's a growing population of people and yet there are resource constraints. The amount of arable land that's available for agriculture is declining."

Climate change is adding additional pressure, and she said two of the biggest pressures are pests and disease. For example, she said the Palmer pigweed is prevalent in the Midwest and becoming resistant to products currently on the market.

Chemical & Engineering News, a publication of the American Chemical Society, ran an article in 2019 with the headline, "Palmer amaranth, the king of weeds, cripples new herbicides." The article noted that the Weed Science Society of America in 2017 voted this Palmer amaranth, a member of the pigweed family, the country's most troublesome weed.

"It will likely require brand-new technology — technology that does not yet exist — to regain the upper hand," the article stated.

Enter Enko. Heard said her company looked to the pharmaceutical industry for inspiration and is taking a "target-based approach," meaning that it is developing products that kill or control pests by inhibiting a particular protein. She compared it to how the COVID-19 vaccine targets a protein to generate an immune response.

"Enko's target-based approach designs molecules that bind only to select enzymes found in specific pests, eliminating these threats without harming humans or the environment," the news release stated.

Heard said Enko has 31 targets in its pipeline. Products would typically be a spray or seed coating, and she said the approval process would be the same for existing products that are regulated by the U.S. Department of Agriculture and Food and Drug Administration.

Heard said environmental concerns are "really core to our vision and to our mission," and that every step of the discovery and development process "takes safety into account, whether it's environmental safety or human safety."


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