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VM Agritech president and CEO, Chris Wightman
VM Agritech president and CEO, Chris Wightman Image credit: Chris Wightman

Meet the founder: VM Agritech’s Chris Wightman tackles fungicide resistance with ‘turbo-charged’ copper-based solutions

April 7, 2023

VM Agritech president and CEO Chris Wightman began his career in investment banking, quickly progressing to senior roles at Goldman Sachs and Bank of America, where he served as head of risk, Europe; and head of global equities; respectively.

But he also had a drive to build things, founding biopharma company PuriCore in 1997, and fungicide maker VM Agritech (VMA) in 2014.

Historically, it hasn’t been easy to eliminate pathogenic fungi in food crops in a completely safe manner as there’s usually a trade-off involved. One approach has been to apply a Bordeaux mixture, an accidental discovery by French botanist Pierre- Marie-Alexis Millardet in 1882, containing copper sulfate, lime, and water that proved effective as a fungicide and bactericide.

However, too much copper can lead to toxic metal build up in the soil, prompting innovators to try alternative approaches that don’t rely on copper, unlike the Bordeaux mixture, which has been banned in the UK. But these also come with trade-offs, notably pathogenic resistance.

Now, VMA says copper can be used as an effective method, within limits, and can help farmers maintain yields in a world where demand for food is rapidly increasing.

VMA’s flagship product, Curezin, is a broad-spectrum, copper-and-zinc-based fungicide that has been tested in vitro at the University of Exeter in the UK and Cornell University in the US, and is now subject to field trials.

With US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) clearance pending, VMA’s products could hit the US market by the end of this year or the beginning of next year with possible applications for banana, coffee, corn, wheat, beets and soy, Chris Wightman (CW) tells AFN.

AFN: What prompted you to go from investment banking to agritech?

CW: Actually working for an investment bank is very lucrative. I mean, it’s outrageously lucrative and what I was doing was genuinely pretty interesting… But, if we’re really honest and we look at things holistically, it’s not really doing an awful lot for our fellow man. Should we ask what is the value of an investment, what does it do in relation to wealth creation?

Well, the wealth creators aren’t investment bankers, the wealth creators are the people that build companies. That’s where it comes from. Entrepreneurial activity is where it all comes from.

So I started thinking, I really need to be building stuff… and creating employment, but also doing something that had positive genuine positive economic benefit.

I began to realize there were some pretty big problems… and two of them kind of intersect. The first is control of pathogens. How do we as a species, control these things that are out there? Essentially, we use antibiotics and we use chemicals and we can’t make new antibiotics faster than the pathogens out there can mutate. And that’s a very big problem. At some point in the not too distant future, we’ll have a real problem on our hands.

So how do you create chemistry that kills bad things without doing damage to good things?

AFN: What makes your product stand out from other fungicides in the market?

CW: In the history of fungicides, copper was the main principal fungicide that farmers used if they needed to employ it. They didn’t use a whole lot of it, because we had a small relatively small global population and lots of land and distribution was the problem with food back then, not pathogens.

After the Second World War big ag corporates created two real chemical streams of chemistries, azoles and strobilurins, which dominated the market and were better killers of pathogens than copper. The other problem with copper was if you use lots of copper, you end up with toxicity in the soil and you get metal buildup.

Unfortunately, now these pathogens are becoming increasingly resistant to those chemistries. There are also lots of side effects and these chemistries have been shown to build up over the years and some are being banned by the European Economic Area (EEA).

So then, what are we going to do about resistance? The answer is copper, because pathogens don’t get resistant to copper.

Our chemistry has managed to find a formulation that turbocharges the copper. We use a very light amount of copper and we get a kill as effective as azoles and strobilurins.

Once we get through regulation, farmers will have another chemistry to use, which doesn’t have resistance critically, but it’s also effective like other fungicides and doesn’t have any of those negative side effects and uses way less copper so you can you can continue to use it without worrying about toxic buildup.

We made this discovery, we patented it, and we tested it extensively. We’re going through a huge field trial program, and so far, it’s very broad spectrum works on all the stuff that we need it to work on.

AFN: What are the results of the trials?

CW: They’re still ongoing and what we have shown is that we have equivalent kill or equivalent in terms of efficacy to azoles and strobilurins.

The pathogen that we appear to be most effective against relative to other chemistries, is the pathogen that is a broad family, but it’s called fusarium.

AFN: How do you regard the push for organic farming?

CW: In an ideal world, we would grow food completely organically and that would be better and healthier for us.

The problem is, we don’t have enough land to produce enough food for 8 billion people without using chemicals to control pathogens and fertilizers. And fertilizers are a declining game. The more fertilizer you use, the more you need and soil quality degrades.

But here’s the problem. A couple of billion people wake up every morning really hungry, go to bed hungry. Squaring that circle, it’s a developed world problem really. Going organic is not an option for a couple of billion people.

Behind all of that we have a global problem, which is what I’m focused on and feeding people is the first thing we have to do.

Farmers are never going to use one chemistry, but we want Curezin to be a major chemistry that people use because it’s safer and there’s no resistance.

Big ag is obviously spending a lot of money on what they call biologicals and hopefully, those biologicals become effective, and there’ll be a whole new world of chemistry in a decade that farmers can use.

But in the meantime, there’s a problem today and we think we are an answer to that.

Pathogenic attack on a farm is not like a 20% crop loss. That’s not what happens. You lose none or nearly everything. For a farmer, it’s the difference between being wiped out or not being wiped out. And they’re all businessmen. For them, I think this is a very acceptable trade off.

AFN: You are at the intersection of research and industry. Why are so many innovations in this field never commercialized?

CW: So if I’m a professor in any given institution and I’ve been working on pure research, which is generally paid for by nonprofit type grants or a philanthropic organization, and I make a discovery, I’ll need to have a patent.

That professor then goes to the patenting organization of the university because under the professor’s employment contract, the invention belongs to the professor and the university.

The university then works with patent lawyers and files a Patent Cooperation Treaty (PCT) which will allow it to file for patents globally after 12 months.

The problem is that patenting around the world is really really expensive, and the universities can’t afford it. So at the end of the year, if the technology hasn’t gone anywhere and with a US patent only and nothing in the rest of the world, somebody else can come in and commercialize that technology.

Companies invest in something that’s protectable. If it can’t be protected and anybody can have it, then somebody will just wait for my research and commercialize it. That’s the fundamental problem with technology.

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