Lenore Shoham

Women In Agtech: CEO and CTO of InPlant Technologies

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InPlant Technologies is a biotech startup intending to “improve the efficiency of agrochemicals and fertilizer, ultimately allowing the farmer to achieve better outcomes with smaller amounts of chemicals,” said founder Lenore Shoham from the stage at the Israeli Incubator Trendlines Agtech‘s Annual Company Showcase in March.

Lenore was the vice president for new ventures at Trendlines Agtech until she “fell in love” with the InPlant technology and stepped into the role of CEO at the one-year-old startup. Shoham equates the uptake of agrochemicals in the field to a nicotine patch – the efficacy depends on the nicotine actually circulating in the body.

InPlant’s technology facilitates penetration of of agrochemical components into the plant’s “transport system” to be distributed.

Shoham says that many agrochemicals don’t move well in the plant. InPlant’s solution comes from medical drug delivery technology wherein liposomes are used to facilitate better absorption of pharmaceuticals. InPlant uses liposomes, small balls of fatty acids, to do the same thing for agrochemicals.

InPlant Technologies is a largely female team, with the inventor of the technology, Dr. Avi Schroeder, the only man on the founding team of five.

When we reached out to Shoham requesting an interview for our “Women in Agtech” series, she insisted we interview her CTO as well who has her own uniquely Israeli story of arriving in the agtech field. So here is first, an interview with Shoham herself (LS) followed by an interview with InPlant Technologies CTO Gal Dvorkin (GD).

CEO Lenore Shahom:

Q: Why did you choose to go into ag and ag tech?

LS: I was exposed to Agtech through my previous role as VP New Ventures at one of the Trendlines Group technology incubator. In my first few months there I was involved in the strategic process that focused the incubator on Agtech. At that time (2011) we were looking for a strategic focus that would be consistent with Trendlines’ mission of creating and developing companies to improve the human condition. We identified Agtech as a field that offered a great opportunity and that would inevitably experience great growth.

Q: Why did you launch your company and what are your responsibilities?

LS: InPlant was one of the projects I reviewed in my previous role at Trendlines. I helped recruit the team and develop the R&D proposal and the business case. We were looking for a CEO for InPlant, and since I had fallen in love with the project and wanted a change, I was happy to take on the challenge.

Q: What does your company do and what is its edge?

LS: InPlant is developing a platform delivery technology to improve the efficiency of agrochemicals and fertilizers. The goal is to improve not only uptake but also mobility of the active ingredient in the plant. Ultimately, InPlant’s technology can allow the farmer to achieve the same results using smaller amounts of input, or to use the same amounts of input to obtain a stronger effect. Although the basic approach is borrowed from pharma, InPlant’s formulation is adapted to the agricultural environment – tailored to work in plants, scalable, generally recognized as safe, and low cost.  

Q: What are your short term and medium goals with regards to your company?

 LS: A few months ago InPlant signed a collaboration agreement with one of the major players in the field of crop protection. We are currently looking for partners in the fields of fertilizers and biostimulants. We aim to expand our pipeline and launch a first fertilizer product in three to four years.

Q: What are the next steps for the company?

  LS: We are working on our crop protection pipeline with our partner. In parallel, we are working on formulation of our first two micronutrient products.

Q: Why is it an exciting time to be in this space/industry?

  LS: We are working in the nexus between food production and sustainability – a gratifying context for our daily efforts. We feel the Agtech boom very clearly, with players from the entire value chain looking for innovation.


Q: What are some of the biggest challenges for agtech start ups?

   LS: Early stage funding is still a major problem. InPlant, for example, is not quite ripe for a VC investment. Instead, we are looking for funded collaborations, which are not always optimal from a strategic point of view. Another major challenge is the effect of seasonality on R&D.

Q: Being a woman in a male dominated industry, what are some of the challenges that you have faced and how did you tackle it?

    LS: Honestly, I don’t feel that big of a challenge, but maybe InPlant is still in a sheltered environment. I do on occasion encounter a paternalistic approach, which I either ignore or politely object to…

Q: What do you think would change that?

     LS: I believe the situation is improving constantly. I am very happy to see my female employees at the forefront of our discussions with partners and investors. Every such meeting is an empowering event.

 

CTO Gal Dvorkin:

Q: Why did you choose to go into ag and ag tech?

GD: I’m a third-generation farmer. Growing up in the Kibbutz, as a teenager I worked in the fields (melons and cotton). After I finished my service in the army, I worked as a plant protection and irrigation assistant at the avocado plantations in the Kibbutz. I fell in love with the job, and wanted to learn more and to broaden my knowledge. After one year in the avocado plantation, I enrolled in the plant protection program at the university.

Q: Why did you launch your company and what are your responsibilities?

GD: I looked at the idea and the proposal, and I saw the potential this invention has to change things in various agricultural fields, and I wanted to be a part of it. I enjoy the challenge of R&D work, which combines research with a practical view.

Q: What does your company do and what is its edge?

GD: Living in the Kibbutz, I either sprayed myself, or was exposed to chemicals sprayed by others. In my BSc, I learned that most of the times the input itself has been tested and is safe for human consumption (at specific rates), but the additives are problematic. InPlant formulation reduces those additives dramatically, which will have major effects in ecological and environmental aspects. 

Q: Why is it an exciting time to be in this space/industry?

GD: I started my first year at the university in 2005. The emphasis of the studies has changed since, and even the name of the program and the courses offered have changed. The needs are growing. We must find better ways to grow more quality food and fast. The industry is changing, and everything is moving.

Q: Why in your opinion are there so few women in agtech?

GD: There are women in the Agtech field, but at very specific areas. In the plant breeding area there are many women, and also in regulation. There are not many women at the front of the industry. Agriculture is considered hard physical work, in difficult conditions. Also, most big companies would prefer men. Why? A high proportion of the first jobs after undergrad/MSc studies are in sales. Most of the clients that sales people meet are men (farmers). Usually, men who grow up in a patriarchal environment like hearing about the new variety/plant protection product/ machines from another man. It will be difficult for the client to put faith in what a woman says about an agricultural product. Therefore, it’s hard for women to start from the bottom, and if you don’t start from the bottom, you will not reach the top.

For example, there was a big agricultural chemical company that did not employ female product managers in some of the sectors until eight years ago. The reason for that was that all product managers were promoted to this position after having been field guides for a couple of years. Women, however, could not be field guides, because they were unable to execute a field study with pesticides not yet registered, spraying alone with 30 liter back sprayer. Only eight years ago that company understood that they must open the door for women. 

 Q: Being a woman in a male dominated industry, what are some of the challenges that you have faced and how did you tackle it?

GD: Paternalism is by far the worst. Every time you succeed, there is a man who would come forward to claim your success as his own. I was always the best student, but when male students got a hand shake, I sometimes got my cheek pinched. Sometimes, the way is to quote a male professor or colleague who supports my opinion. I think the best way is to be a professional, and always work harder.  Over time, after I proved myself, it got better. The paternalistic attitude usually comes from men from older generations, while working alongside younger men I feel completely comfortable.

Q: What do you think would change that?

GD: I see a change at the front lines of the industry, and even in the field there are more women than used to be 10-15 years ago. I meet more women colleagues, partners and investors. Every time I meet with a woman at official an Agtech occasion or meeting it’s empowering.

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