“AgroSpheres is targeting the synthetic chemical and biological crop protection markets, working with partners and developing our own products. Target customers include industry partners who need advanced formulation technologies to more effectively deliver their active ingredients,” said Doug Eisner, CEO at AgroSpheres, in a recent interview with AgroPages. He also shared his views on AgroSpheres’ innovative bioparticle delivery platform and its application value, target markets and target clients, as well as future development planning etc.
AgroSpheres is an agricultural biotechnology company located in Charlottesville, Virginia that has developed a novel, bioparticle delivery platform for crop protection products. AgroSpheres’ bioparticle is a spherical cell that can encapsulate and deliver both synthetic chemicals and biological pesticides. The bioparticle can shield these actives from environmental degradation, enable sustained, controlled release of the active ingredient and allow them to stick to plant leaves for rain fastness.
AgroSpheres was spun out of the University of Virginia. The company was founded by Payam Pourtaheri and Ameer Shakeel who met while studying nanomedicine and biomedical engineering at UVA. As undergrads, Payam and Ameer began working on a related, bioparticle technology. Upon graduation, they founded AgroSpheres. They raised a $750,000 seed round, hired a team of talented UVA scientists and set up the laboratory. I joined the AgroSpheres team in August 2018. Previously, I was the COO and co-founder of GrassRoots Biotechnology, an agricultural biotechnology company that was spun out of Duke University and eventually acquired by Monsanto.
AgroSpheres currently has six full-time employees and a team of experienced advisors to guide the company. Advisors include Kelly Smith, Director of Microbials Development at AgBiome; Per Falholt, former Sr. VP of R&D at Novozymes; Michael Kock, former head of Intellectual Property at Syngenta; and Todd Abraham, former Senior VP of R&D, Mondelez.
Q2. Could you describe the Platform Delivery Technology of your company and its innovative and application value?
AgroSpheres’ delivery technology is a bioparticle that can be loaded with synthetic chemicals and biologicals. The bioparticle is a small, spherical, biological cell (approximately 400 nm) that is produced during the fermentation of parent, bacterial cells.
The bioparticle can protect the encapsulated active ingredients from extreme temperatures, pHs and environmental chemicals. For example, the bioparticle can be loaded with dsRNA and shield it from RNases in the environment that would otherwise quickly break it down.
Another benefit of the bioparticle is the ability to control release of the active ingredient. Release kinetics of the active can be tuned during bioparticle production. For example, the addition of agents that crosslink the bioparticle membrane produce a sturdier membrane that slows the release of the encapsulated actives, potentially for as long as two months.
Another key feature of AgroSpheres’ bioparticle is the ability to embed proteins on its membrane surface. Proteins like carbohydrate binding module enable the bioparticles to stick to plant leaves for rain fastness. Proteins can also be used to target specific pests, like surface-expressed proteins that adhere to the gut of an insect, or proteins, like chitinase, that can degrade chitin in the cell walls of fungi.
Q3. Could you describe production of AgroSpheres’ bioparticles?
AgroSpheres’ bioparticle is produced during a fermentation process that can be scaled to produce large quantities at low cost. During fermentation bacterial parent cells split off small spherical bioparticles. Because bioparticles do not contain chromosomes, the EPA has deemed them to be non-GMO. Currently, we are utilizing E. Coli. to create bioparticles, but other rod-shaped bacteria can be used.
The loading of externally produced active ingredients – both synthetic chemicals and biologicals – is accomplished by incubating the bioparticles in a solution with the active ingredient. For biologicals, AgroSpheres’ bioparticle has a very significant COGS advantage because biologicals can be expressed in the parent cells during the initial fermentation process. The parent cells are engineered to produce the desired biological – dsRNA, proteins, enzymes… When the bioparticle splits off from the parent cell it retains the biological. We’ve achieved very high loading rates of dsRNA with this internal expression method and can also produce peptides and enzymes in this manner.
Q4. What are your target markets and target clients? What are the plans to develop new technology/product and extend new markets/regions?
AgroSpheres is targeting the synthetic chemical and biological crop protection markets, both working with partners and developing our own products. Target customers include industry partners who require advanced formulation technologies to more effectively deliver their active ingredients. Our partnerships have validated key benefits of our bioparticle platform - shielding actives from environmental degradation, enabling leaf adherence and controlled release of the active ingredients. We will also develop our own insecticides and fungicides and sell to growers through channel partners.
Q5. Could you talk about your company’s current collaborations with other companies?
We’re engaged in several collaborations with industry partners to develop the bioparticle platform to deliver our partners’ active ingredients. Our first partnership with Adama Agricultural Solutions is focused on delivery of synthetic chemical pesticides. We’re looking forward to working with Adama to commercialize our first bioparticle product.
In the biologicals space, AgroSpheres has signed partnerships with GreenLight Biosciences and TechAccel to encapsulate dsRNA. These partnerships will test delivery of dsRNA to control Colorado Potato Beatle and Lepidopteran insects.
Initial experimental results with GreenLight have demonstrated that dsRNA encapsulated in our bioparticle was as effective at controlling Colorado Potato Beatle as naked dsRNA. This was a significant result because we are confident that bioparticle encapsulated dsRNA will resist degradation and last longer on crops and have better release kinetics than naked dsRNA or other current formulation strategies.
Q6. What are your company’s future plans?
We are in the process of raising capital to develop our bioparticle platform and achieve important milestones over the next two years.
In the near future, we will continue to work with our partners to advance bioparticle formulations to commercialization. This involves ongoing R&D to engineer the bioparticle for optimal delivery. The bioparticle is a flexible, tunable platform and we continue to improve its loading capacity, release kinetics and targeting. We will form new partnerships to enhance delivery of a variety of active ingredients.
Concurrently, we are starting to develop our own bioparticle pesticides. We are working with a team at North Carolina State University to produce an insecticide for thrips. The goal is to encapsulate dsRNA that controls thrips and embed a protein on the bioparticle membrane to adhere to a protein thrips’ gut, effectively targeting that dsRNA payload.
AgroSpheres is also developing a fungicide that encapsulates a biological and expresses a protein on the bioparticle membrane to provide a dual-mode of action against important fungi pests.
Our mission is to advance the bioparticle delivery platform in a wide of areas in crop protection to deliver better tools to farmers to control pests and achieve higher yields in a sustainable, environmentally friendly manner.