Enko Chem, a Boston-area start-up specializing in small-molecule pest control products, has raised $45 million in a second round of funding led by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, bringing its total funding to $66 million. The company, which was founded in 2017, says its approach to discovery and development will revive what it calls the pesticide industry’s stalled R&D pipeline.
Jacqueline Heard founded Enko and is the firm’s CEO. She is a venture partner at Anterra Capital, an early Enko investor. Trained as a plant pathologist, Heard worked at agriculture start-ups before moving to Monsanto. Enko’s chief science officer, Tom Meade, also has big agchem company experience: he was recently global leader for trait discovery at Dow AgroSciences, now part of Corteva.
Heard says Enko is different from the big companies. Instead of using traditional high-throughput methods to screen molecules for pesticide activity, it uses DNA-encoded libraries to select candidates from among billions of molecules. The technique, pioneered in the drug industry, is less expensive than older methods and allows researchers to run parallel experiments with different targets.
And while major agriculture firms such as Bayer and Corteva typically screen for molecules that result in dead pests, Enko screens for specific modes of action. That means scientists will know how each successful candidate works to kill an insect, fungus, or weed.
“You can improve safety and outcomes if you know a lot more about the target in the pest you are trying to inhibit,” Heard says. “It gives us options to combat pesticide resistance and allows us to address safety and efficacy at the very start of the process.”
Heard says Enko’s goal is to take successful candidate molecules and, using downstream chemistry, develop them into cost-effective, safe products that are chemically differentiated from pesticides on the market today.
Enko will partner with the Gates Foundation to bring its pest-control products to farmers in sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia who generally don’t have access to the newest solutions. “There is a commercial market for products in these places that are underserved,” Heard says, “but they need a more affordable price.