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Crop Enhancement: Using Materials Science to Replace Toxic Pesticides with Smarter, Safer Solutions

  • 25 May 2018
  • Expert Insights

This post is part of our Future of Agriculture series in which we interview the leading founders and executives who are on the front lines of the industry to get a better understanding of what problems the industry is facing, what trends are taking place, and what the future looks like.

The following is an interview we recently had with Kevin Chen, PhD, CEO of Crop Enhancement.

1. What’s the history of Crop Enhancement? Where and how did you begin?

KC: Crop Enhancement was founded by serial entrepreneur Dr. David Soane. David had already successfully founded a dozen technology companies and has a track record of inventing solutions to difficult industrial problems by applying his chemistry expertise to surface and materials science. A sampling of his innovations includes a super-strong reinforced gypsum drywall for the construction industry that doesn’t crack or crumble, a stain-repellent apparel and drapery treatment, and ultra-low viscosity proppants for highly efficient hydrocarbon recovery in the oil and gas sector. More than half of his companies have successfully exited by acquisition, with one exit by IPO (ACLARA BioSciences Inc.).

His Big Idea for Crop Enhancement: What if materials science could revolutionize how crops are produced by arming growers with more precise and versatile pest-control solutions that could complement or even replace conventional chemical controls? This led to the invention of our core product platform technology.

Initially, our small core team was housed within the Soane Labs incubator in Cambridge, Massachusetts. After the completion of our Series B funding round, we relocated our growing team to a new HQ in San Jose, California. This places us closer to our customers (growers of high-value specialty crops) and investors and situates us in a region renowned for agriculture and entrepreneurialism.

Crop Enhancement

2. What specific problem does Crop Enhancement solve? How do you solve it?

KC: Crop Enhancement is focused on applying innovations in materials science to help farmers dramatically reduce or even eliminate use of toxic pesticides on their farms. Every year, growers face multiple pest threats and a short window of time in which they can effectively use biological and chemical controls. As regulatory pressure and high R&D costs reduce the pipeline of available crop protection products, farmers are looking for new, cost-effective approaches to control pests and increase yields.

Our current market focus is on developing solutions for crops grown in the tropics and near the tropics. This is a multi-billion-dollar market that includes crops like cocoa, coffee, bananas, pineapples, citrus, berries, and vegetables. Farmers in the tropics have significant challenges. The climate is exceptionally hot and humid with high (and unpredictable) rainfall, so the pest pressure in these regions is extremely high. They are struggling to find effective pest-control solutions and are generally underserved by existing solutions and innovations. Often, farmers will spray their crops and then it will rain that same day — all that pesticide will be washed away into the environment, requiring re-application.

Our solution for these farmers is a non-toxic treatment called CropCoat®. It creates a thin biodegradable film that serves as a physical barrier between an insect and a plant surface. We’ve designed the product to withstand the rigors of harsh environments such as the tropics while maintaining its effectiveness. CropCoat can be applied at different points in the plant’s growth cycle, acting like a microscopic skin that stays on the crop surface throughout the growing season, protecting the plant from damage by pests and pathogens, and ultimately improving crop yields at harvest.

What does this mean for growers? With CropCoat, growers have an expanded toolset at their fingertips that enables them now to implement sustainable integrated pest management (IPM). Growers won’t need to wait until after pest damage has surpassed an economic threshold before taking action to protect their crops and increase yields.

3. What’s the future of pest management in Agtech?

KC: Several emerging trends are changing the industry and shaping our business strategy. The first is a growing pressure on growers to implement sustainable IPM approaches in response to consumer demand for a transparent food system. This is driving the development of a variety of new tools to manage crop production and improve yield so that growers can maintain good environmental and soil health.

Second—and this is linked to the first trend—there is growing receptivity by growers to consider new approaches and technologies as they face increased pressure on yields stemming from pest resistance and a lack of effective solutions. This trend is affecting not just professional growers, but also the many millions of smaller private growers across the globe. Often, it’s these smaller operations that are more willing to try new approaches — especially if doing so enables them to differentiate themselves by implementing sustainable growing approaches.

Crop Enhancement

Lastly, we’re seeing a consolidation of agrochemical businesses into giant companies (such as Bayer-Monsanto, Dow-DuPont, FMC-DuPont, BASF-Bayer) that are primarily focused on solving the issues of large-scale agriculture. This has opened up a new window of opportunity for smaller, more nimble companies that can innovate quickly and bring to market new solutions that address growers’ needs.

4. What are the top three technological trends you’re seeing in Agtech that are changing pest management?

KC: First, it’s clear that there is no “silver bullet” that will solve the pest-management problem for growers faced with a multitude of customer and regulatory constraints. As a result, today there is a rapidly increasing use of biological treatments, including biopesticides, biostimulants, soil and plant microbiome technologies, deterrents, and novel effective coatings.

Second, the application of new sensing, imaging, data-collection and data-analytics approaches are arming growers with predictive tools that generate accurate recommendations, so they can get ahead of potentially devastating crop threats. These technologies, coupled with precision-farming approaches, are providing a feedback loop that promises to boost yields.

Third, emerging automation solutions such as ‘see and spray’ systems, and indoor vertical growing operations are aiming to make pest management a more sustainable proposition compared to outdoor farming.

Cacao – Crop Enhancement

5. Why is the Agtech sector ripe for disruption?

KC: Changing consumer preferences are an incredibly important driver of change in the agricultural sector. Consumers today —and especially millennials— are concerned about where their food comes from and how it was produced. Transparency and authenticity are important purchase drivers, and, to some degree, there’s a ‘rejection’ of large ag and food business. At the same time, people are eating differently. Along with a greater diversity (such as ethnic cuisines), there’s more knowledge of the connection between diet and health, and how our food choices impact the environment. These forces, along with the evident need for sustainable farming approaches, are forcing players along the entire farm-to-table value chain to change what they grow and how they grow it.

At the same time, there is a simultaneous convergence of technologies from outside of ag that are finding their way into ag as solutions to critical farming problems: new materials approaches, new hardware and software capabilities, new machine-learning algorithms for processing data, and new gene-editing technologies.

Of course, future innovations in agtech will require continued investment support from financial venture firms, corporate strategics, family offices, private equity firms, and governments. To that end, I think today’s agtech industry has benefited from the trail blazed by the so-called cleantech movement that started last decade, which heightened public awareness of sustainable approaches to energy and transportation. This created a new investment sector and VC firms focused on ‘doing good’ – including each of Crop Enhancement’s investors (Spruce Capital, 1955 Capital, Phoenix Venture Partners, and Bandgap Ventures).

About Kevin Chen

Kevin Chen, Ph.D., is CEO of Crop Enhancement, a venture-backed agriculture technology corporation based in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Founded by renowned materials scientist and serial entrepreneur Dr. David Soane, Crop Enhancement is developing sustainable agrochemical formulations that employ advanced, environmentally friendly chemistry to improve crop yields, eliminate or minimize pesticide use, and enable precise and effective delivery of active ingredients and fertilizers.

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