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June 28, 2021 Startups, Innovation & Technology

Enko Chem takes big data approach to green pesticide R&D from Greater Boston to CT

PHOTO | CONTRIBUTED Enko Chem researchers work out of the company’s new Mystic headquarters, at 62 Maritime Drive.

Enko Chem’s recent move from Greater Boston to Connecticut raised a few eyebrows.

The four-year-old green agrochemical startup has raised $70 million to date and boasts a high-profile partnership with the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, among other markers of a serious up-and-comer.

Yet, founder and CEO Jacqueline Heard decided to move the company away from the world-renowned startup ecosystem in and around Boston to a 91,000-square-foot facility in Mystic, formerly occupied by companies like the now-defunct agricultural biotech giant Monsanto.

“We don’t see any downside associated with relocating outside the Boston area,” Heard said. “It’s very easy for our venture investors to come from Boston to this area, and I think it opens their eyes to the other possibilities of opportunities that could develop in places outside of the Boston area.”

Jacqueline Heard

Public and private sector officials have been trying to promote Connecticut as a desirable home base for rising early-stage companies like Enko, and Heard said the state has some advantages for startups, including its proximity to venture capital in Boston and New York, and a lower cost of living compared to those locales. Additionally, Heard said, the Maritime Drive property Enko bought in Mystic for $6 million earlier this year is a perfect fit for the company.

Big data

Enko is a research and development startup in search of environmentally-friendly pest controls. Its researchers use machine learning technology to parse through gigantic datasets of known chemical reactions, to try to find compounds that are toxic to pests, but harmless to plant life and other organisms, Heard said.

“Machine learning helps us rapidly gain these insights, and then to move our products forward much more quickly than we could without it,” Heard said. “We’re utilizing some of the technologies that have been developed for drug discovery in the pharmaceutical space and applying it to crop protection.”

More than two-thirds of Enko’s 30 employees work on R&D, while the rest oversee facilities maintenance, Heard said. The process of researching and testing chemical compounds, and eventually bringing them to market for commercial agricultural use, could take about a decade, which is a typical timeline for drug discovery, she said.

That means Enko’s investors must be patient and they appear to be willing to play the long game. Enko raised $45 million last year from financial backers led by the Gates Foundation, which is interested in possibly deploying green pest control chemicals to farmers in underserved regions, like parts of Africa and Southeast Asia, Heard said.

Other investors include Anterra Capital, Finistere Ventures and Novalis LifeSciences.

Heard, who holds degrees from Boston College, Harvard and MIT, initially established the company in Woburn, Mass., where it operated until it moved to Mystic in March. While she has connections and access to capital in Boston, Heard previously worked for Montsanto and spent five years at the Mystic facility.

“I always knew this was here in the Connecticut area, and that it’s a state-of-the-art facility to do agricultural research,” Heard said.

The facility includes 33,000 square feet of new greenhouse space that allows researchers to experiment with chemical compounds.

Building momentum

Amid its move to Mystic, Enko drew a $2.2 million investment from Connecticut Innovations, the state’s quasi-public venture capital arm. Kevin Crowley, CI’s senior managing director of investments, said the company’s solid reputation, financial backing and innovative method of applying pharmaceutical industry processes to agriculture all drove the decision to invest.

Additionally, he thinks Connecticut’s established and growing bioscience ecosystem — in addition to its agricultural science hubs like at UConn — helped in Heard’s decision to move Enko to the state.

“[Enko’s move] is a continued testament to Connecticut’s commitment to the bioscience industry,” Crowley said. “I think you’re going to continue to see more moves like this.”

Enko’s momentum appears to be gaining steam. The World Economic Forum recently named the company one of its 2021 “Technology Pioneers,” which recognizes early- to growth-stage companies from around the world that are poised to have a significant impact on business and society.

The company also recently announced a multiyear partnership with Syngenta Crop Protection, a global agricultural science and technology company. Syngenta will employ Enko to design environmentally-friendly chemicals that eliminate pests and novel plant diseases.

As Enko prepares to raise its next round of funding in the next year or so, Heard said the company’s new Connecticut home is already proving to be a good move.

“We had an 80% retention rate among the employees who were working with us in the Boston area,” Heard said. “People love the area, we’ve been able to hire, and have a lot of support from the local biotech community — BioCT, and organizations like that — to hire great talent.”

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