Enko: Designing Safe And Sustainable Solutions For Crops In A $60 Billion Market

By Amit Chowdhry ● Sep 28, 2023

Enko is a company that designs safe and sustainable solutions to farmers’ biggest crop threats today, from pest resistance to new diseases. By applying the latest drug discovery and development approaches from pharma to plants, Enko is bringing an innovation model to agriculture and meeting farmers’ evolving needs. Pulse 2.0 interviewed Enko Chem CEO and Founder Jacqueline Heard to learn more.

Jacqueline Heard’s Background

Jacqueline Heard

Heard has been part of the agtech ecosystem for close to 25 years. And Heard said:

“My experience spans growing research teams, building companies, investing in winning innovations, and serving in Board positions, but I am still a scientist at heart.”

My dedication to direct dialogue with farmers and commitment to helping them overcome crop challenges laid the foundation for a lifelong pursuit of commercializing technology solutions for the agriculture industry. Throughout my career, I’ve focused on bringing innovation from the lab to the farm, whether it be as an R&D leader at Monsanto, investor at Monsanto Growth Ventures and Anterra Capital, or an entrepreneur at startups like CiBO Technologies, Mendel Biotechnology, and now Enko Chem.  I earned my Ph.D. in Biology from Boston College and an MBA from MIT Sloan.”

Formation Of Enko

How did the idea for Enko come together? Heard shared:

I saw how the pharmaceutical industry was using artificial intelligence (AI) to discover new drugs and wanted to investigate applying new drug discovery and development approaches to design safe and sustainable crop protection solutions. There was a clear opportunity to leverage AI to increase the scale, speed, and safety of crop protection R&D. As climate change exacerbates on-farm challenges around the globe that include pests, weed,s and fungi, the call for sustainable crop protection solutions has taken center stage in the worldwide fight for food security.”

Favorite Memory

What has been your favorite memory working for Enko so far? Heard reflected:

March 11, 2021. That’s the day we opened our 86,000-square-foot headquarters and research facility in Mystic, Connecticut. More than just a new space to serve as our headquarters, this was a critical step forward for our business. It enabled us to bring all of our research under one roof and has allowed us to amplify our pre-field experimentation.”

“We have state-of-the-art labs and computer-controlled greenhouses across more than 15 acres of land strategically set only a short distance from massive city hubs. It is a sprawling campus and provides all of the space we will need for future expansion.”

Challenges Faced

What are some of the challenges you faced in building the company? Heard acknowledged:

Research. Research. And more research! Luckily, that is exactly what drives me. As a scientist, the need for the continued pursuit of more knowledge, better accuracy, more tests, and more proof is a given. Growing our research team and capabilities is at the very root of building our business – every growth milestone and achievement either is meant to support it or stems from it.”

Core Products

What are Enko’s core products and features? Heard explained:

Our discovery platform ENKOMPASS uses DNA-encoded libraries, AI, machine learning, and structure-based design to find and select the right treatments for the right targets, faster and more effectively. Our products under development are designed to provide safe and sustainable solutions to farmers’ most urgent crop threats, from pesticide resistance to new diseases. We are developing products designed to eliminate the most damaging weeds, insects, fungus and soil-borne parasites without harming the environment.”

Once fully commercialized, farmers should be able to use less product, less often. Early tests, for instance, have shown the potential to reduce chemical applications to fields for weed burn by almost 90 percent.”

Evolution Of Enko’s Technology

How has Enko’s technology evolved since launching? Heard noted:

Our AI and machine learning have continually evolved during our six years in business, but last summer was a key point in the evolution of our capabilities. In June 2022, seeing the urgency of farmers’ needs compounded due to severe droughts, the threat of plant disease, and recent constraints on food supply, we significantly advanced our ENKOMPASS™ platform through the acquisition of two proprietary DNA-encoded libraries (DEL). The libraries consist of billions of molecules.” 

“Acquiring them makes us the first company to internalize this technology for agricultural applications and opens an absolutely massive universe of potential chemicals to explore.”

Significant Milestones

What have been some of Enko’s most significant milestones? Heard cited:

Thus far, our founding in 2017 and research facility opening in 2021 are key milestones. We’ve also attracted $150 million in funding ($80 million raised as part of our Series C) and cemented partnerships with the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, Syngenta, Bayer, and Nufarm, among others. The World Economic Forum also recognized Enko as a Tech Pioneer based on working to make a positive difference in farming and economies with a keen eye on safety, and our partnership with them continues to grow. Just this year we stepped up to Global Innovator status, growing our role as one of a global network for leading start-ups and scale ups. Additionally, and of special note, SVG Ventures also named Enko a Top 50 THRIVE agtech innovator in 2023.”

Company Successes 

Upon asking Heard about company successes like early trials and customer feedback, she said:

Enko’s agricultural invention platform integrates proven drug discovery methods (such as DNA-encoded libraries) with Al and machine learning to dramatically accelerate the discovery of differentiated sustainable solutions. Pioneering this approach to tap into an untapped chemical universe for agriculture, Enko has access to more than 100 billion molecules, has already generated hundreds of leading crop protection molecules across all categories of crop protection, and currently has over 40 novel, active pipeline programs.”

In field trials, our leading herbicide molecule, which is designed to specifically target the most common, damaging superweeds without impacting off-target organisms like pollinators, outperformed glyphosate. Using 13 times less product, it demonstrated positive results and eliminated resistant weeds more effectively. The molecule moved from discovery to demonstrated field performance in just 15 months.”

Total Addressable Market

What is the total addressable market (TAM) size that Enko is pursuing? Heard assessed:

Our products address a $60 billion core market focused on crop health with expansion into adjacent markets topping $300 billion.”

Differentiation From The Competition

What differentiates Enko from its competition? Heard affirmed:

Our approach, and the use of AI and machine learning in molecule discovery, is what differentiates us. We take a systems approach to discover and develop differentiated and sustainable solutions for agriculture productivity across crop systems globally. We use DNA-encoded libraries and other proven drug discovery methods combined with Al and machine learning to accelerate finding the right treatments for the right pest targets, far faster than current R&D methodologies.”

“A pioneer of the next era of eco-chem solutions for ag, Enko has access to more than 100 billion molecules, has generated hundreds of leading crop protection molecules across all categories of crop protection, and currently has over 40 novel, active pipeline programs. More than 50% of the molecules operate through novel, underexploited pathways (modes of action) to suppress the target enzyme uniquely found in a pest.”

We can screen lead molecules in 75% less time with 90% lower cost, bringing new crop health tools to farmers faster. Pre-screening molecules also de-risks its process and ensures that the products we pursue will be safe, effective and make a real difference for farmers.”

Agtech Evolution

How does Heard see the agtech market evolving over the next 5 years and where does Enko fit in? Heard replied:

The agtech market is bringing more smart technologies to the farm to help farmers be more efficient, make faster decisions and have information at their fingertips. I firmly believe that state-of-the-art solutions for preserving plant health that seamlessly integrate with other agtech innovations are imperative for the future of humanity, and our planet. We are well positioned to work in concert with other tools and strategies being developed, from drones to smart tractors.”

Future Company Goals

What are some of Enko’s future company goals? Heard pointed out:

Our goal is to move the needle both for farmers and the environment. We are working to bring products to market that will help farmers better protect their crops and improve their outputs, while ensuring the sustainability of agriculture and safety of our planet at the same time.”

Additional Thoughts?

Any other topics you would like to discuss? Heard concluded:

We are at the beginning of the next era of safer, more sustainable chemicals for the ag industry. Building upon a proven discovery technology in pharma, Enko is discovering and developing crop health products that are not only safe for the surrounding environment, but also help farmers combat resistance and allow growers to use less product, less often. Enko’s target-based approach has generated a product pipeline of novel and diverse molecules in half the time and with fewer resources than legacy R&D methods.”

“Diving deeper into our science: Connected to each molecule is a DNA barcode that identifies its properties. Up to a trillion molecules can be stored in a single test tube using this method. Enko screens these molecules against our target proteins to see which molecules bind during the discovery process. Artificial intelligence helps Enko quickly scan the DNA barcodes of every reactive molecule and learn more about their unique characteristics. Then, a toolkit of technologies like computational biology and machine learning helps Enko make sense of the data and zoom in on molecules that show the most promise in crop health. To put it into context, this immensely reduces the time it takes to go from concept to product. Traditional ag companies’ pipelines require 13-15 years from concept to product, and Enko went from discovery of its leading herbicide molecule to demonstrated field performance in just 15 months.”


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