In 2011 two UNM inventors disclosed a novel microencapsulation technology that could be used for targeted delivery of microbes lethal to parasitic pests causing human disease and crop-destroying pests disrupting global food supplies.
In 2012 the co-inventors presented their disclosed technology at the STC and New Mexico Angels (NMA) Technology Showcase and captured the interest of the New Mexico Angels, a local group of individual accredited angel investors focused on investing in early stage companies. NMA spun out start-up EcoPesticides International in 2013 through its New Mexico Start-up Factory, a holding company dedicated to commercializing UNM technologies through the creation of New Mexico start-up companies. EcoPesticides has licensed the technology from STC and is developing it as a safe and effective alternative to chemical pesticides for use against crop-destroying insects such as grasshoppers and locusts. The company is focusing on the microencapsulation technology and its ability to protect a wide range of green pesticides and herbicides from ultraviolet (UV) light, which causes these products to degrade quickly.
Company CEO Les Stewart, a biotechnology executive with extensive experience in developing and commercializing emerging technologies, is passionate about the technology’s potential. “What is exciting about our technology is that it enables potentially widespread use of microbial pesticides and herbicides, and facilitates the targeting of pests, while minimizing exposure to non-target insects. The market potential for effective, microbial-based pesticides is very attractive—an estimated $5 billion by 2020, which is 10 percent of the global pesticide market.”
The microencapsulation technology was developed by Dr. Ravi Durvasula and Dr. Adam Forshaw. Dr. Durvasula is a professor in UNM’s Department of Internal Medicine, vice chair of its Division of Infectious Diseases, and director of its Center for Global Health. Dr. Durvasula is a very active UNM inventor, international expert on infectious diseases, and a pioneer in developing ways to use microbes to disrupt the infectious agent in disease-carrying insects.
Dr. Forshaw, who received a dual MD/PhD from UNM with an emphasis in biopolymer chemistry and engineering for biomedical applications, is currently a resident at Vanderbilt University Medical Center and is an expert in microencapsulation and biopolymer manipulations.
Together, the two inventors have found a way to control the process of using biopesticides and maximize their effectiveness in the field via microencapsulation. Their technology is a bio-polymer coating that can be used to encapsulate bacteria and fungi that are naturally occurring pesticides for crop-destroying insects such as locusts and grasshoppers. The encapsulation protects the microbes from UV light, which degrades the pesticide before it has a chance to be ingested by the insects. The encapsulated microbes are spread over fields, protecting crops without harming helpful insects, other crops, animals or people. Extending the biopesticides’ effectiveness also has the added benefit of having to use less of it, which reduces the cost to customers, especially subsistence farmers in many parts of the world.
The technology’s research and development has been funded by a Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation Phase 1 grant through its major initiative to increase food security in Africa. I n 2014, the company completed a Series A round of funding for $400,000 from investors, including the New Mexico Start-Up Factory, NMA, a private venture firm in Nevada and the STC and UNM Foundation Co- Investment Fund.
“STC administers the fund. The co-investment fund helps local start-ups using early stage UNM technology to develop the technology further in order to attract follow-on larger rounds of funding from other investors. A co-investment committee reviews funding requests and can invest up to $100,000 in a company which must be matched on a 1-to-1 basis by a venture capital fund or an angel group,” said STC CEO Lisa Kuuttila. “This technology has the potential to create a new, more sustainable model for global agribusiness. We believe in the technology and the company’s ability to bring it to market.”
The funding has allowed the company to set-up a lab in Santa Fe to accelerate the technology’s development and seek strategic licensing and funding partners. Lab and cage trials have demonstrated the technology’s proof-of-concept and shown an ability to extend the viability of the biopesticides until bacteria and fungi die naturally.
EcoPesticides is negotiating several MOUs with universities and companies who are interested in the technology and recently signed a Cooperative Research and Development Agreement (CRADA) with a USDA lab in Montana. The technology is currently being field tested in Ethiopia, Tunisia and Montana.
The company is also developing a portfolio of environmentally friendly products for the microbial pesticide market and seeks strategic partners from agribusiness companies, governmental or private research organizations, foreign governments, and investors who are looking for more effective biopesticide and bioherbicide technologies. Visit the EcoPesticides International website at www.ecopesticides.net.