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    Monday, April 15, 2024

    Mystic crop health company reaches $150 million in funding

    An employee of the crop health company Enko works in the lab in Mystic on Monday, Jan. 30, 2023. (Erica Moser/The Day)
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    Plants treated with chemistries Enko developed sit in one of 11 walk-in growth chambers at the company's headquarters in Mystic on Monday, Jan. 30, 2023. This stage of product testing happens after a lower-tier assay and before moving onto the greenhouse. (Erica Moser/The Day)
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    Peter Stchur, vice president of operations for Enko, shows an example of an early-stage assay on Monday, Jan. 30, 2023, with testing of the company's crop health chemistry being done on a broad-leaf plant and a weed. (Erica Moser/The Day)
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    Mystic ― The crop health company based in the former Monsanto facility on Maritime Drive announced Tuesday it has completed its Series C funding round and raised $150 million in capital to date, an announcement coming on the heels of the CEO’s visit to Davos, Switzerland to speak at a World Economic Forum panel on climate adaptation.

    Enko is developing products to target pests and diseases that threaten crops, “a sector where innovation has really stalled,” according to CEO Jacqueline Heard, who explained that seven of the top 10 crop protection products on the market are at least 20 years old.

    She said it’s a $65 billion market that’s in need of a refresh, and that farmers today are struggling with pest resistance to products.

    Enko, founded in 2017, has gotten its latest funding from Eight Roads Ventures, Nufarm, Endeavor8 and Akroyd LLC, bringing total capital raised from $140 million in July, when Enko announced $70 million in prior Series C funding, to $150 million. Series C is the third phase of raising capital for startups, often with the goal of preparing a company for significant expansion.

    “The cracks in our global food system are impossible to ignore, and ag-bio companies like Enko are at the leading edge of applying new digital tools to drive innovation and future proof our food supply,” said Dr. Prem Pavoor, head of India and health care investments for Eight Roads Ventures, in a press release.

    Heard said moving into Series D funding indicates Enko is moving into a phase where it has de-risked its platform ― meaning it has proven its technology ― and has created products that are going into commercial development.

    Heard thinks Enko will have product on the market by the end of the decade. She said what gives investors confidence in the meantime is that Enko is utilizing technology that has already been proven effective in the pharmaceutical space, and that this “addresses the biggest needs for sustainable agriculture in the future.”

    And as is the case with pharmaceutical drugs, Enko products will need to go through a lot of regulatory testing.

    The product furthest along in development is a herbicide. Vice President of Operations Peter Stchur said one molecule has been tested in the field for more than three years, with more than 100 trials in at least 17 states and in other countries. He said it can kill weeds and has been demonstrated as safe to use on corn, soybean, wheat and cotton.

    “We expect this to be a big blockbuster in the industry, with over a billion dollars in sales potential,” Stchur said.

    In addition to herbicides, Heard said Enko also has fungicides and insecticides, and a new area she is excited about developing is biostimulants, “which is really trying to help crops utilize water and nutrients more efficiently.”

    Enko has generated hundreds of molecules across these categories through its ENKOMPASS platform, which combines DNA-encoded library screening with machine learning. Heard explained that a library has billions of unique compounds, and Enko scientists apply a “funnel” to get to a few that meet several parameters: addressing the pest, safety for the environment, and safety for humans.

    “If you think about starting with a billion compounds, it’s a massive undertaking to do that funnel well,” Heard said, so Enko uses artificial intelligence that can take past outcomes, create models and predict future outcomes.

    These kinds of algorithms are called generative AI, a category that also includes a program that has been in the news a lot lately: ChatGPT, which can produce AI-generated text from a human prompt.

    “If ChatGPT can go out and find information to help kids write research papers or something, we can use (AI) to rapidly scrape information to design better targets,” Heard said.

    She said Enko has about 40 full-time employees in Mystic and will be growing to around 60, but the company also utilizes a lot of contract research organizations (CROs), meaning there are people working on its projects around the globe. The largest category of employees in Mystic work in research and development, including biologists, chemists and agronomists.

    From testing to greenhouse

    Enko relocated its headquarters from Woburn, Mass. to Mystic in 2020. Stchur explained that Enko had been working with a CRO in the United Kingdom and would have to wait a couple weeks to get results back, so the company was looking for its own greenhouse space.

    “When we came down and took a tour of this facility, it was perfect,” Stchur said. He said Monsanto ― where Heard used to work ― had someone keeping the building operational while it was vacant, so when Enko moved in, “it was just a matter of turning things on.”

    What made the laboratory the perfect fit was that the setup follows the pipeline from target discovery to protein expression and purification to herbicide testing, with 11 walk-in growth chambers for plants.

    Stchur gave a tour of the lab and greenhouse space Monday.

    The R&D process starts with screening the DNA-encoded libraries. Scientists can selectively remove compounds, and a data science group uses models to make sense of the data. The goal is for a compound to kill a specific insect or pathogen in a plant and nothing else around it.

    Once scientists have identified chemistry that’s viable, the next step is developing an assay, a lab test to assess the effectiveness of chemistry developed.

    “Are these compounds potent at the target site? If not, that’s useful information, so we know what not to do. If yes, it’s onto the next test,” Stchur said. This is where the plants come in. Stchur gestured to a table with an example of an early assay, with the chemistry tested on a broad-leaf plant and a grass.

    The next step is testing in a walk-in growth chamber, to see if Enko can translate a lower-tier assay to a plant grown in soil. Success there then means graduating to the greenhouse; Enko has 30,000 square feet of greenhouse space.

    Standing in the greenhouse, Stchur commented, “This has been just a dream for us, now that we can go from testing upstairs to bringing chemistry right out here and seeing how it performs in a more agronomically relevant setting.”

    e.moser@theday.com

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