BioPhero, a Danish startup that’s fermenting insect pheromones for crop protection purposes, has just raised $17 million in Series A funding.
The round was led by DCVC Bio, the life sciences-focused fund under Silicon Valley-based DCVC. FMC Ventures, the VC arm of US chemicals company FMC, came on board as a new investor. Existing backers Syngenta Ventures and Novo Holdings also participated.
BioPhero is playing its part in trying to reduce agriculture’s reliance on potentially harmful chemical inputs. In particular, it is joining the movement towards biological crop protection alternatives – and it’s focussing on pheromones.
This class of products aims to control pest insects by inhibiting their ability to reproduce. Generally, such products attempt this by ‘confusing’ the critters as they go about trying to mate, deploying pheromones which interfere with the insects’ aventures amoureuse.
Pheromones offer a non-toxic alternative to synthetic chemicals and the potential negative impacts on environment and biodiversity associated with their overuse. Pheromone-based biological inputs can also reduce over-application of chemistries by slowing the pests’ buildup of resistance against them (since insects do not develop resistance to pheromones, which they naturally produce themselves.)
Using yeast fermentation techniques on renewable raw materials — mainly byproducts from manufacturing plant oils and sugars — BioPhero is producing pheromones that can be added to pest control inputs for corn, rice, soybean, and a variety of other row crops.
“The use of pheromones for mating disruption has been known for about 30 years, but not in row crops. It has been too expensive to produce and so it required a more economical source of pheromones,” BioPhero CEO Kristian Ebbensgaard told AFN.
“What we have is a novel and proprietary platform based on microbial fermentation. We basically copy nature’s way of making pheromones, like the insects do themselves, and produce large amounts of pheromones at the right scale and right quality, and at much lower costs.”
While there are other companies in the market making pheromones for crop protection purposes, they tend to use chemical synthesis rather than fermentation, according to Ebbensgaard.
“That’s fine for specialty segments, but not the volumes required for row crops,” he said, though he added that as different pheromones are “to some extent specific to the insect, there is a need for more than one company to open up this market for pheromones to become a widespread tool available to growers.”
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BioPhero aspires to become the leading supplier of purified, concentrated pheromones as an active ingredient to companies formulating spray-on applications for row crops.
“Even though it’s a biological solution, the mode of action is more easily compatible with the treatment programs that are already in the industry,” Ebbensgaard explained.
“So we think there will be an appetite from agro-chemical players; it’s something you can put in a spray, put in the field, and tell growers how to use it. [It’s] more easy to understand and implement for growers and agro-chemical players.”
BioPhero will use the Series A funding to ramp up manufacturing of the first product to emerge from its platform – a pheromone combination targeting rice and soybean pests. It will also carry out further R&D for additional products and work to “develop the market” with some of its customers and collaboration partners, Ebbensgaard said.
“We hope to see, and we expect, pheromones to become a standard […] used in the treatment programs for large row crops – and that of course will have a huge impact, with many millions of hectares treated in a more sustainable way,” he added.
“We have known the DCVC Bio team and their fund for many years and we respect their track record as knowledgeable investors in our sector, so I am delighted that they have decided to join us on our journey,” said Michael Lee, managing director at Syngenta Ventures and a member of the board at BioPhero.
“We invested in the incredible team at BioPhero about three years ago, recognizing their industry-leading technological and R&D capabilities, and they have consistently surpassed all expectations in that time,” he told AFN.
“This new round of investment will allow them to extend BioPhero’s platform, creating low-cost pheromones each capable of controlling multiple species.”
BioPhero was spun out of the Technical University of Denmark in 2016 by founder (and now chief technology officer) Irina Borodina, a bio-sustainability expert. It completed a $2.9 million seed round in late 2018.
The startup participates in EU-backed research consortia Olefine and PHERA — both focussed on the development of scalable pheromone-based treatments — through which it works with inputs companies including Greece’s Novagrica, the UK’s Russell IPM, and the European branch of the US’s ISCA.