Danish ag biotech startup BioPhero closed a $2.9 million seed round with Syngenta Ventures, Novo Seeds, the early-stage investment arm of life sciences investor Novo Holdings, and Danish public innovation hub Syddansk Innovation.
The company develops insect pheromones that are used as active ingredients in products to control pests in crops. The pheromones are created by insects and used as signaling molecules that modify other insects’ behavior. By recreating the pheromone that insects use to indicate that they are ready for mating, BioPhero’s product lures pesky pests away from a crop. Because the insects ultimately fail to find each other, this disrupts the mating cycle and helps reduce the amount of pest pressure without impacting the crop, according to the company.
“We’ve been excited by the pheromone space as an opportunity for a number of reasons,” Michael Lee, managing director at Syngenta Ventures told AgFunderNews. “They are ephemeral in the sense that they don’t last long, they are not entirely species specific but it’s pretty close, and they’re biologics and non-toxic to fish, and humans. So, frankly what’s not to like?”
Founded by Dr. Irina Borodina as a spin-out from the Technical University of Denmark in 2016, the company is currently in the R&D phase trying to tackle the most difficult aspect of the technology behind pheromones. So far, companies have been largely unable to harness the power of pheromones for pest protection due to the high cost of recreating them. The Danish startup is working on a proprietary biotechnology method that would create an economically feasible pathway to using this technology in row crop farming.
“The challenge is that to achieve synthetic pheromones requires a number of different steps, perhaps up to seven different chemical steps, to achieve different reactions,” explains Lee. “Also, each step has a yield that’s less than 100%, so if you multiply that up it’s quite an expensive product limited to particular markets. It would be a bit like taking Chanel No. 5 and spraying it everywhere across a big field. We need to create a low-cost Chanel No. 5.”
BioPhero isn’t the first company to tackle this challenge. Other players in the pheromones space include M2i in France, Provivi in California, and Shin-Etsu in Japan. Each company takes a slightly different approach to manufacturing the end product, some relying on fermentation while others rely on chemistry. BioPhero’s process relies entirely on fermentation. Most of these companies have targeted specialty crops, however, because their high value allows the growers to afford the costly synthetic pheromone products.
“The key thing is to attempt to develop a few pheromones – because they are different for different insects and different crops – that can be leveraged into row crops. Some pets in row crops are suffering from huge resistance to traits or chemistry, so there should be a big pull from the market because of the species specificity,” explains Lee.
Making Pheromones Mainstream
While the company continues its R&D efforts, they have some ideas regarding how this product might fit in the market. As Lee notes, pheromones are unlikely to provide farmers with a silver bullet to mitigate all their pest-related woes because they are not relevant in all insect orders. Beetles and flies, for example, rely on other methods to track each other down for mating.
“There is a pull from the market because traditional chemicals have issues around resistance and the way to target that is through a chemical that is natural, non-toxic, and part of the regular reproductive cycle of the insect,” Shubhang Shankar, investment manager at Syngenta Ventures, also told AgFunderNews. “Secondly, if GMO technology were to be limited in a specific region, then pheromones become a very viable form of pest control. So, what we will probably see is multiple modes of approaches to pest control and pheromones are well positioned to be one of those modes.”
As for route-to-market challenges, BioPhero will face the same hurdles that many startups face. It takes some retooling for companies to pivot from developing a thing that works to figuring out who its customers will be, says Lee.
“It’s a space that has a lot of potential but there are lots of companies trying to solve this issue, so companies will have to exist in a matrix of traditional chemistry, seed companies, and other competitors in the pheromone and bio space,” says Shankar.
The most critical piece of the commercialization puzzle in Shankar’s eyes will be the technology’s ease of use for farmers. If the product is too difficult to use in the field or requires many different steps or serious effort to apply, then it could dissuade farmers from including it in their pest control arsenal regardless of its efficacy and environmental benefits.
“Farmers around the world are in need of new forms of environmentally acceptable forms of insect control to protect their crops. This seed investment, together with the Horizon 2020 grant OLEFINE, will enable our vision to complete the next stage of BioPhero’s development as we begin to bring pheromones to the market”, says Dr. Irina Borodina, research director at BioPhero, in a press release regarding the raise.
BioPhero is establishing a new board of director consisting of Michael Lee from Syngenta Ventures, Thomas Grotkjær from Novo Seeds, Peter Smedegaard from SDI, and founder Dr. Irina Borodina. Hadyn Parry, former CEO of Oxitec, the GM insect company combatting mosquitoes that was acquired by Intrexon in 2015 for $160 million, has joined BioPhero’s board as the new chairman. Kristian Ebbensgaard, BioPhero’s current business director with a background from Novozymes, has been appointed as the CEO of BioPhero, while Dr. Irina Borodina has been appointed as the research director.