Israel-based biological crop protection technology startup WeedOUT recently announced the first close of a Series A round led by Syngenta Ventures to tackle weeds that are resistant to chemical herbicides such as glyphosate. If effective, this product could be revolutionary for the bio-crop protection space; it’s understood that efficacy in biological alternatives to herbicides specifically has been challenging to achieve.
WeedOUT is developing what it calls the industry’s first species-specific biological herbicide, by harvesting pollen from specific weed species, irradiating it to become sterile, and then artificially pollinating weeds in the field using pollen dispersing equipment. It’s specifically targeting resistant weeds that have become resistant to chemical herbicides like glyphosate. Resistant weeds leave farmers with little recourse to address them, posing serious problems because they can spread rapidly, taking over cropland or pastureland and reducing productivity. This has led some farmers to stack multiple herbicides together in a bid to target each possible species that could be plaguing their fields.
WeedOUT’s approach is very different to ag-chemicals incumbent Bayer, which a couple of weeks ago announced plans to combat glyphosate resistance with yet more chemicals. The company is undergoing significant biologicals research and invested in NewLeaf Symbiotics but told AFN it’s struggled with efficacy.
WeedOUT’s full Series A round will close in March 2020. Other investors in the round include CreditEase Israel Innovation Fund and Zora Ventures. Existing investor Radicle Growth backed the company around the same time that it won the inaugural Radicle Challenge Israel. It’s also received grants from the Israel Innovation Authority and the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation program.
“It’s a good team and it’s different,” Michael Lee, one of the managing directors for Syngenta Ventures, told AFN. “The world is replete with pretty colored maps and non-differentiated products that even investors struggle to differentiate let alone farmers who have precious little time to study it like us. As an investor, I look for something different with strong a strong IP position so that when the future plays in that direction you are well-positioned to make a handsome return.”
Launched in 2009, Syngenta Ventures is the venture capital arm of Syngenta, a global crop protection, seed, and digital tool provider. With 30 portfolio companies to date, the multi-disciplinary team invests in companies on its own and also co-invests alongside a range of investors, including agtech venture capitalists, philanthropies and foundations.
WeedOUT ticked the differentiation box for Lee through its use of sterilized pollen to target specific species of weeds. He has seen similar approaches used to manage invasive pests by genetically engineering sterile male insects.
This is Syngenta’s second biologics play. In 2018 it led a $2.9 million seed round for Danish pheromone-based pest control startup BioPhero.
How Syngenta Ventures thinks about investing in biologics
When asked whether the dark cloud of uncertainty surrounding the effectiveness of biologicals concerns Lee when making investments, Lee offers a different way of thinking about the emerging space.
“Yes, it’s risky. All Series A investments are risky. But is this effective? It depends on what paradigm you are using. If your paradigm view is that we need to kill a weed quickly, then dicamba or glyphosate is an effective weed killer,” he explains. “But if you play by a different paradigm, which is an easily imagined world with all the politics around herbicides, instead of blanket spraying of non-selective chemistry you move to a situation where it’s at least complemented by a precision application of some sort and that can be achieved in two ways. One is by targeted spraying or you can do a precision application of a species-selective product.”
He points to the development of bio-based alternatives in small molecule pharmaceuticals against a similar tide of doubt about their efficacy and application. Although they haven’t replaced small molecule solutions, biologics are finding a valuable niche for things like rheumatoid arthritis. Bio-based pheromones are already finding a similar niche in the specialty crop sector, too.
Although some might describe his outlook for the future of biologics as idealistic, he is grounded in his approach to the challenges that WeedOUT must face, which includes a list of what he describes as outstanding exam questions about its technology. One is the passive nature of pollen compared to the lusty fervor with which sterilized male insects will seek out their female companions for mating. Given the less sexually predacious nature of pollen, perhaps it won’t be as effective as the sterilized insects.
The challenges are simply part of what a venture capitalist encounters, however. And as Lee puts it, the most promising plays are usually the ones hiding underneath a pile of seemingly insurmountable challenges.
“Venture capital tends to work best in areas that aren’t the focus of large companies. We’ve come across a lot of companies trying to do small molecule and push them down the pipe but personally I’m more interested in those that aren’t being looked at.”