EcoPesticides Poised to Impact the Biopesticides Market
Venture Acceleration Fund investment propels startup’s UV-protectant technology to market
Katherine Rodgers, EcoPesticides’ biological technologist, is excited about the future of the company and its potential to disrupt the entire biopesticides industry. Gesturing toward a mysterious-looking piece of equipment perched on a table within the Santa Fe Business Incubator (where the company is housed), she introduces it as a key element for their future disruption.
The equipment simulates the effect of sunlight in a controlled environment. It was purchased with funds from the Venture Acceleration Fund (VAF), a program that provides seed money for early-stage startups and growth-oriented companies who often lack the collateral for debt financing. The equipment supports the company’s move out of research into the field-testing stage, and—eventually—into the marketplace
The VAF is a program administered by the Regional Development Corporation (RDC), an economic development organization tasked with supporting businesses who are creating jobs and attracting revenue to the Northern New Mexico region. EcoPesticides fit squarely within that model, and was awarded VAF funding in 2016.
EcoPesticides had been gearing up and gaining attention within the state, landing an initial grant from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation that was critical to the advancement of their technology. The company’s next big move was to bring Chief Technology Officer Steve Miller on board to commercialize the technology and take it to market. Miller brings nearly 30 years of technology development and commercialization experience in the pharmaceutical and biotechnology industries to his role at EcoPesticides.
“I knew that this was going to be an environment that we could leverage to help create the ecosystem that’s required for growing a biotech company,” Miller said of Santa Fe. “I’m a scientist and a business leader who’s very comfortable working directly with customers and thought leaders,” he said. “I combine those skill sets to help advance emerging technology and how it fits into the marketplace.”
When Miller came on board in April of 2015, he and Rodgers took a long, hard look at their intellectual property and how they could move a technology from the university to the marketplace.
“It’s a common story, and one that turned out to be true for us,” said Miller. “The actual intellectual property [from the] academic environment may not be viable.”
He went back to the lab, and with his background in nano-chemistry and nano-particles, was able to create something truly market-viable. “The idea that I could modify the UV protectant materials in a way that would give us the desired properties became a path forward for us.”
There’s a global interest in the biopesticide process, which uses naturally-occurring biocontrol agents (such as fungal spores, bacteria spores, and toxin crystals) to control the damage done to crops by chewing insects. The problem that has not been solved to date by other companies is degradation of biopesticides in sunlight, humidity, and high temperatures, making them less likely to be used in areas like New Mexico and Arizona.
Enter EcoPesticides and its groundbreaking eShield microbead technology. After years of research, EcoPesticides has developed the ability to create a microbead that contains a biocontrol agent shielded by a trade-secret UV protectant. The microbeads outer shell is made from alginate, a seaweed-based component, calcium, and contains the UV protectant. Together they form a polymer and the biocontrol agent’s lifespan within the mirobead is increased dramatically, no matter the sunlight radiation level.
Last May, EcoPesticides made use of the VAF award by purchasing the Atlas Suntest XLS+, a $24,000 solar radiation system, has given EcoPesticides the confidence that their UV protectant is something exceptional. It’s a solar radiation system that is used to create simulated sunlight radiation for controlled exposures. After the initial purchase, it’s proved to be a low-cost way to test the trade-secret UV protectant technology.
In addition, EcoPesticides purchased a spray dryer, which is often used in food labs to create powdered milk products such as coffee creamer.
“It provides a heated environment in the drying process, which is not good for many biologicals,” said Miller. It’s being used as research tool and it helps them to understand and work with temperature extremes and their impact on the eShield microbead technology.
There are job opportunities available, too. Within the next year, Miller said that EcoPesticides hopes to hire three more people.
EcoPesticides’ next VAF milestones are continuing to prove their technologies and to move onto field testing. The field-testing process is based on acreage. Experimental use permits from the EPA are for tests of 10 acres or fewer.
All of the products that EcoPesticides works with are already EPA-registered. EcoPesticides is in discussions for a field trial this summer and conceptually could be ready for the market by next year.
“[The] product can be used in extreme solar environments- that’s New Mexico and Arizona, where we have large food growing areas where many biopesticide products suffer, and that’s where they’re going to do the field trials,” said Miller.
There is huge potential because having a product that can work in extreme sunlight should improve the growers’ experience.
The VAF investment came at a critical juncture to the company, and will be instrumental in its growth—something the RDC has heard from many VAF companies over the past decade. The VAF is the only program in Northern New Mexico that provides seed money for early-stage technology startups and growth-oriented business who lack the collateral for debt financing. Funded primarily by Los Alamos National Security (LANS), the VAF has assisted Northern New Mexico businesses at critical junctures since its inception in 2006. The VAF receives additional support from Los Alamos County, Santa Fe County, City of Santa Fe Economic Development and New Mexico Manufacturing Extension Partnership (MEP).
“It’s all about timing,” Miller said. “And the time is right. It’s a renaissance for biocontrol.”