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June 26, 2023 Startups, Technology & Innovation

With $150M raised, Enko brings artificial intelligence to pesticide development

HBJ PHOTO | HARRIET JONES Enko founder and CEO Jacqueline Heard in the pesticide development company’s Mystic greenhouse.
Enko Chem at a glance
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You might not think of agriculture as a data-driven industry, but it is.

“There’s a whole movement in precision agriculture,” said Jacqueline Heard, founder and CEO of Mystic-based Enko.

Her startup company is at the heart of that movement, applying artificial intelligence to developing a new generation of pesticides that she hopes will meet the tough challenges facing farmers who must feed a growing world population.

“Instead of constantly improving, it looks like some of the largest crops in the world, the yields are stagnating,” said Heard. “Farmers are losing the battle with resistance to different solutions that they have out there today. With climate change, there’s more weather variability, which adds additional risk to growers.”

That’s where her potential herbicides, fungicides and insecticides come in.

“One of the most critical things for more sustainable agriculture is to really optimize productivity on every acre that’s currently being farmed. There’s just not a lot of arable land left,” she said.

Enko was founded in 2017 in Woburn, Mass., but moved to the Mystic facility — a former Pfizer and then Monsanto property — in 2021, attracted by tailor-made greenhouse space to test its growing products pipeline.

It bought the property for $6 million, town records show.

Enko has been through two major fundraising rounds, its Series B led by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, and then a Series C, which closed at $80 million last year, led by strategic partner Nufarm and including funding from Connecticut Innovations, the state’s quasi-public venture capital arm.

David Wurzer

That connection eventually also brought them a new chief financial officer, David Wurzer, who retired from CI last year and subsequently joined Enko.

Overall, the company has raised $150 million in four funding rounds since its inception.

“People constantly ask me what should you invest in, and I say, ‘food, water, and infectious disease,’” Wurzer said. “In each of those areas there has to be significant change from a technology standpoint for us to meet the needs of two billion more people on this planet by 2050.”

Enko grows weeds at its Mystic greenhouse to test its various pesticide candidates.

He said joining just as Enko put the equivalent of three years’ funding in the bank has allowed him to concentrate on execution.

“One of the things we’re really focused on right now is building that next layer of management,” he explained.

The company’s staff has grown from 30 people before the latest funding round to 44 now, with the intent that it will hit 50 by the end of the year.

Those roles include data scientists and software engineers in addition to biologists. Wurzer said the currently small leadership team needs help to manage that expansion.

Corporate governance is another focus.

“The board has evolved, and will continue to evolve, from an investor-driven board to a board that is more industry and strategic as well,” he said.

Wurzer is an industry veteran, having taken two companies public, including Curagen in the 1990s. He won’t yet say if that’s in Enko’s future, responding only that the company can potentially exit in the next several years through either private or public markets.

Artificial intelligence

Developing a new pesticide is a lengthy and highly regulated process, analogous to developing a new drug for human health care.

Historically, it’s taken about 13 years to bring a novel compound to market. Heard said she believes her AI-driven model can cut that to between eight to 10 years.

Enko has generated hundreds of crop protection molecules through a technology platform it calls ENKOMPASS. That combines screening of DNA-encoded chemical libraries with machine learning and structure-based design to find new, better-performing and more targeted chemistries.

“It’s a numbers game,” she explained. “It’s really fishing out of a universe of amazing chemical tools, the things that will actually work the best for your context.”

That’s where the freezer comes in.

“Ten billion compounds are housed in this freezer, and they fit on a little tray,” said Peter Stchur, vice president of operations, slapping his hand onto an appliance that wouldn’t look out of place in your kitchen. “This is the top of the pipeline for us.”

“If we were looking for a new insecticide,” said Stchur, “we want something that is going to, let’s say, kill fall armyworm, one of the big, damaging pests. But we don’t want it to touch butterflies. Don’t want it to touch bees. We want it to be safe to humans. You can set up your experiment to do that.”

When the chemical characteristics that will fulfill those requirements are identified, artificial intelligence tools can comb through encoded DNA libraries containing billions of likely candidate compounds to find the one that fits the bill.

That’s the portion of the process that’s being massively sped up by new technology. It’s an approach that was first pioneered in drug discovery for human health care.

“That’s probably the biggest innovation that’s not being done in crop protection at all anywhere else,” said Heard.

Once a likely candidate is identified though, things go from the virtual world right back into the real world, to the lab bench, and from there to the grow chamber, greenhouse and finally the field.

The Mystic greenhouses are now equipped with computer-controlled flood tables that water plants from below on a precise schedule. Lighting is also computer controlled.

Stchur said doing their own testing at the Mystic facility means they can control experiments much more precisely, abandoning things that aren’t working more quickly, and pivoting to new experiments when those are indicated.

The move required them to hire a horticulturist.

“(The horticulturist) had spent her career growing ornamentals, and it was kinda like, ‘well, how would you like to grow weeds?’” said Stchur.


The company’s most advanced compound, a herbicide they haven’t publicly identified, has gone even beyond the greenhouse into real-world testing in an agricultural setting. It is intended as an alternative to current herbicides on major crops like corn, soy, cotton and wheat.

“There’s a whole consortium of growers that will grow to support the crop protection industry,” said Stchur. “We’ve been out to the field for three years.”

They have run more than 300 trials in five continents, and will be continuing testing in Europe this fall.

If you think of it once again as a pharmaceutical pipeline, these are the equivalent of human clinical trials, and they will lead to a dossier that will be prepared for regulatory approval, the final step before the product hits the market.

Although, Heard warns, there could still be four years or so ahead of them in terms of meeting regulatory targets.

“We really do feel this first product is something that demonstrates the value proposition of what we really intended to do,” she said. “We can use the molecule at a very low use rate. It stays where it’s applied, so it doesn’t appear to have any likelihood of leaching into the environment or water supplies.”

That’s the evolution that she hopes will help Enko address the huge challenges of climate change and population growth.

“Technology has always come and saved people from starvation. And with AI, I really believe it’s a huge accelerant. Innovation is going to be happening faster than it’s ever happened before.” 

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