AgroSpheres is changing the future of the agriculture industry. Based in Charlottesville, Virginia, this is a company dedicated to providing hardworking farmers with accessible and reliable biobased solutions for crop protection.

AgroSpheres’ innovative technologies have led to the company being named in Business Worldwide Magazine’s Top 20 Innovative Companies to Watch, 2020. Founders Payam Pourtaheri and Ameer Shakeel told us about how AgroSpheres came to be, and how together they are changing the future of the agriculture industry.

Congratulations on being recognized in BWM’s top 20 to watch list. Can you tell us a bit about AgroSpheres’ journey so far?

We met as undergraduates at the University of Virginia and both had a passion for how the application of biology can promote sustainability. We began working with a really interesting SynBio technology, now coined the AgriCell, and approached Dr. Mark Kester to identify the best market fit for our technology.

After reviewing some World Health Organization reports, we learned about the significant health concerns associated with the usage of chemical pesticides, especially in developing countries. We became passionate about developing environmentally friendly solutions for current pesticide usage, starting with a pesticide remediation product.

The product tackled an important issue of pesticide contamination in our food supply chain, however, the application of this product, in terms of the time and cost associated with an additional spray posed an inconvenience for adoption. Through further research and customer discovery, we learned from both farmers and pesticide companies that the true need in the field is for effective, environmentally friendly pesticides.

We directed our technology towards this need for biobased solutions for farmers. Our products are demonstrating superior efficacy without the negative environmental footprint of chemical pesticide usage. The innovative technology and the potential to significantly impact the crop protection industry excited investors, which led to raising over 9.5M in investment dollars from Ospraie Ag Science, Cavallo Ventures, and Angel investors.

Sustainability is a huge issue in the agriculture industry. How have traditional crop products failed to be environmentally friendly and what is AgroSpheres doing to redress the balance?

Pesticides need to be both effective and long-lasting in the environment. For these reasons, they stick around longer than we’d like and have off-target toxic effects. We are developing biological solutions that are environmentally resilient and have efficacy comparable to their chemical counterparts without the off-target toxicity.

Despite the environmental concerns, chemical pesticides have still been the first choice for the majority of farmers. How are you enhancing biopesticide products to create a real competition?

Chemical pesticides are scalable, cheap, shelf-stable, and reliably efficacious in the field. A major challenge with traditional biological alternatives is that they do not provide these benefits, especially reliable crop protection, in the field. The AgriCell technology enables us to develop biological pesticides that are cost-effective, shelf-stable and consistent in the field.

Chemical plant protection contributes to increased resistance in target pests and destroys the surrounding beneficial organisms through off-target exposure. This cycle necessitates more frequent spraying at higher doses of chemical pesticides to achieve the same protection. We are addressing this issue by providing selective biological pesticide solutions with novel modes of action that do not pose the same off-target exposure risks to beneficials. Our products are intended to be deployed as standalone products to replace synthetics, as well as rotational products in Integrated Pest Management (IPM) systems that lower the use of synthetics over a season.

“No effects without side effects” – collateral damage often seen as a necessary evil in crop protection. How does your work challenge this notion?

Our biopesticides deliver targeted and reliable crop protection without polluting the environment or harming non-target organisms.

Have you encountered resistance among farmers to adopt more environmentally friendly practices, and if so, how have you won them over?

Farmers are always looking for more environmentally friendly alternatives. The problem is that the current alternatives are more expensive and less effective. To prevent their hard work from going to waste and watching their fields be devastated by pests and pathogens, farmers have to use chemical pesticides until there are better alternatives in the market.

Can you explain a little about the next generation of crop protection products: RNAi, pheromones, and others?

Crop protection is moving towards more elaborate Integrated Pest Management (IPM) systems where chemical pesticides are used as a last resort to control pests and pathogens. New biological pesticides like pheromones have gained traction to control pests by disrupting their mating patterns. These novel biopesticides have great potential but require sustainable delivery technologies to be commercially viable on a larger scale.

The next generation of pesticide technology that is as effective as chemicals but is entirely biologically-derived is RNAi. RNA interference (RNAi) works by silencing vital genes of a target pest/pathogen. Since it works on the genetic level, the pesticide is species-specific, preventing off-target damage to non-harmful insects like bees, helping to promote biodiversity. Scaled production, processing, and delivery of RNAi-based pesticides remain major challenges to commercial viability. Also, since they are species-specific, they will have to rely on IPM strategies for complete control.

Our technologies provide sustainable production, processing, and delivery of these up and coming biopesticides, improving their potential to be commercially viable and compete with chemical pesticides. While we transition towards these new biopesticides, chemical pesticides will still be relied on for effective crop protection. We believe our capabilities can take RNAi to the next level, and they will eventually be able to be sold as standalone products.

What advice do you have for other young start-ups?

Focusing on the heavy criticism you receive early on is one of the most important things you can do. Enjoy the positive feedback but do not get caught up in it. Listening to people who give you reasons why your company might fail will help you prepare better for the future. Build a strong advisory board of individuals with unique expertise that helps shape your company’s path forward. Our decisions have been well informed thanks to the tremendous expertise on our advisory board and these decisions have enabled our ability to impact farmers’ lives across the globe, while staying consistent with our vision for a future built by Nature’s technologies.

Can you give details of your partnerships and the field data that has been developed so far?

In field trials, we have demonstrated commercially viable, highly-effective RNAi delivery in both our insecticide and fungicide products. We have also generated field data that shows that our technology can protect biopesticides from UV and heat degradation. We have successfully collaborated with many of the top ten industry leaders to provide them with crop protection sustainable formulations with fine-tuned controlled release profiles. Our commercialization strategy entails both collaborations and independent product development. We are collaborating with crop protection companies to improve the sustainability and efficacy of their existing products and, in parallel, developing our own novel products to work with distribution partners to get our products in the hands of farmers.

How many people are in the team right now?

AgroSpheres is a team of 15. Through our partnership with the CvilleBioHub, we are continuing to attract talent from across the country as well as retain the bright, young talent coming out of the local university, The University of Virginia.

What are your plans for the next five years?

AgroSpheres plans to become a premier crop protection company. To sustain our rapid growth, we will be using our recent funding to invest heavily in R&D. Obtaining large-scale, multiple-site field trial data, expanding our biopesticide product portfolio, and developing the next generation of RNAi-based biocontrols are the major focuses of our R&D efforts. With the addition of the expertise of our Series A investors and their injection of capital, we are well-poised to accelerate toward our commercialization goals.

We intend to fully delineate our regulatory pathway and secure the IP protection of our core technology, as well as file additional applications on the products created from the platform. We have recently doubled our team and lab size and will continue expanding our operations in Charlottesville to develop our technologies to their greatest potential. We intend to add broad, sustainable value to the crop protection industry by commercializing a wide array of products developed in partnership with industry leaders and at AgroSpheres.
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