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Connecticut Startup Enko Wants to Protect Crops Sustainably

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Farming has never been a particularly easy way to earn a living, but it’s especially challenging in the 21st century. With prolonged droughts and more frequent extreme weather events, crop yields are taking a hit. Meanwhile, more than 600 pests worldwide have developed a resistance to current crop protection methods, representing $10 billion worth of losses in the United States alone.

While many governments, businesses, organizations, and individuals are working to offset carbon emissions, protecting crops requires particular expertise. One company on the front lines is Enko, a Mystic, Connecticut-based provider of safe and sustainable solutions to crop threats such as pest resistance and disease.

Photo Courtesy Enko Blog

Enko applies pharma-based drug discovery and development approaches to the process of protecting plants. Founded in 2017, the company is led by a team of scientists, entrepreneurs, and agriculture industry veterans and has gotten backing from some pretty heavy hitters, including the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

This year has been particularly fruitful for Enko thanks to a couple of high-profile partnerships it signed over the summer – one with Syngenta Crop Protection, the Swiss Agtech conglomerate, and the other with Bayer, the German pharmaceutical giant.

The Syngenta deal, announced in June, is a multi-year partnership to design sustainable solutions to combat pests, weeds, and diseases in a way that reduces development and production time. The partnership brings together two companies with innovative approaches and complementary strengths.

Enko has developed a target-based approach to protecting crops that combines novel drug discovery technologies, such as DNA-encoded libraries, with machine learning and structural biology. The goal is to improve the scale and speed of crop protection research and development.

Syngenta’s technology is designed to speed up the process of developing chemistries and bringing them quickly to the pipeline. Normally, it takes 10 to 12 years to develop new pesticides or treatments for agriculture. With this new partnership, the two companies hope to cut that time in half.  

“It’s a true partnership in that we bring a very different approach to how we identify new starting points for products and solutions, and (Syngenta is) a world-class commercialization engine,” Enko founder and CEO Jacqueline Heard told Forbes.

Heard has a diverse background in both science and business, having earned a Ph.D. in Biology from Boston College and an MBA from MIT Sloan. Her previous work experience includes stints as an entrepreneur at start-ups like CiBO Technologies and Mendel Biotechnology, and as a leader of global R&D and investments at Monsanto, Flagship, and Two Blades Foundation.

This twin focus on innovation in science and business is a key part of Enko’s overall strategy to combat crop risks.

Photo Courtesy Enko Blog

“Collaborating with multinational agricultural companies on more selective and iterative product processes can push the industry forward,” she said in a press release announcing the Syngenta partnership. “Together, we will use intentionality and precision to create novel crop health solutions that are both sustainable and effective, rather than one or the other.”

A month after the Syngenta deal was announced, Enko inked a partnership with Bayer to develop diverse chemicals for crop protection against herbicide-resistant superweeds. Under this partnership, Enko will research molecules that could be used to battle superweeds, while Bayer will work on the commercialization of any discoveries.

In an interview with the Hartford Business Journal, Heard said the Bayer deal “is a testament to the fact that what Enko is bringing to the table is significant, and very interesting from a technology perspective,” while Bayer “brings a lot to the table in terms of their experience in commercialization.”

Enko has already raised about $70 million through the Gates Foundation and other backers such as Anterra Capital, Finistere Ventures, and Novalis LifeSciences. The company was named one of the 2021 Technology Pioneers by the World Economic Forum, which recognizes early- to growth-stage companies that are poised to have a significant impact on business and society.

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