RESEARCH TRIANGLE PARK – 5Metis, a newly formed company, has raised $10 million from eight investors in an oversubscribed Series A Preferred Stock financing round, company president CEO Steve Tuttle said in an exclusive interview with WRAL TechWire.
The company plans to use its new funding to combine boron-based small molecule discovery and synthetic biology, said Tuttle. The SEC filing signed on October 4 states $9,398,592 in equity financing was raised from eight investors.
“There’s need in the market to bring new modes of action to the industry for crop protection and plant health,” said Tuttle.
The company will seek to demonstrate that it can boronize natural products, which Tuttle said has yet to be done. “If successful, the company will yield solutions for growers and farmers that could boost crop protection and crop health,” said Tuttle, “and also further the improvement of natural products generally from that perspective.”
Existing challenges in crop protection
Farmers use a number of commercial products to protect their crops. Those products target disease, pests, and weeds, but each of those can evolve to develop resistance to the products being utilized for crop protection, said Brian Green, vice president of research and development at AgriMetis, who is also serving as a strategic consultant to 5Metis, in an interview with WRAL TechWire.
“A product may no longer work so the farmer must change to a different product or suffer yield losses,” said Green. “Eventually, all existing commercial products may become less effective due to continued evolution of the diseases, pests, or weeds.”
That’s why there is a demonstrated need to develop products for crop protection that interact with their targets in different ways, explained Green. That’s what the company means when it says it is developing new modes of action.
But that is particularly challenging, notes Green, comparing it to the discovery of a first-in-class human therapeutic drug.
“5Metis has several important tools to allow it to address this challenge,” said Green.
Natural products as a starting point
For five years prior to joining together the two companies to form 5Metis, Green served as vice president of research and development at AgriMetis, which studied the applications for how natural products can be modified into viable crop protection products.
Natural products, or substances produced by living organisms such as microbes, historically have been “rich sources of starting points to identify new mode of action crop protection molecules,” said Green.
“Natural products are also a good way of identifying new modes of action, because evolution has been driving these microbes to produce molecules for a reason,” said Green. “That reason was not for spraying on a million acres of corn, but there was a reason.”
“Natural products often have rapid degradation, which is a good thing from a safety point of view, but the challenge is they are not designed for spraying those million acres of corn,” said Green.
But, when supplemented, and advanced, with the right combination of the tools provided by a field now broadly called “synthetic biology,” said Green, it means provides opportunities to move faster, and produce products faster, than would otherwise be possible.
That’s why focusing on natural products is one of the foundational points for 5Metis, noted Green. The identification of a natural molecule, known as the “starting molecule,” can then be tested by scientists and modified to develop new analogs of that molecule.
The importance of boron
But 5Metis aims to go beyond natural products. What’s the supplement to the discoveries that can be advances using synthetic biology tools alone?
The “5” in the company’s name is due to the fifth element on the periodic table: boron.
The addition of boron into a molecule derived from a natural product can provide novel methods of interacting with target organisms, said Green, which results in easier, faster, and more effective identification of new modes of action.
“Boron chemistry is completely novel for crop protection,” said Hannah Webb, senior manager of business development and licensing at Boragen, who is also a strategic consultant to 5Metis. “A lot of people know boron as a micronutrient for plants, but boron in itself as an element has some interesting properties to its charge.”
And the property that matters most to the newly formed company?
Boron can reach receptors that more traditionally rigid carbon chemistry cannot get to, said Webb.
“That’s important for crop protection, because it means it can get to active sites that current traditional products cannot,” said Webb. That’s why the company believes that boron is a needed element for the building blocks of new modes of action for crop protection.
“This technology can be applicable to broad areas of crop protection, including fungicides, insecticides, and herbicides,” said Webb.
“I believe this is going to be the strong differentiation for 5Metis’ value proposition compared to other companies that operate in this discovery space,” said Webb.
The 5Metis business model
5Metis officially combined the two technologies in late July and raised $600,000 of bridge funding to bring together the companies, four employees, and the product portfolios to be synthesized, said Tuttle.
Then, the company proceeded to raise the additional capital that it would need to advance its work, recently completing a financing round of $10 million.
“From a strategic fit, it is crop protection and crop health,” said Tuttle. “And from a financial perspective, we’ve got the funding to pursue our goals.”
“We intend our focus to be a technical, R&D company and to seek to create the new intellectual property for new modes of action for these molecules, and then partner them off,” said Tuttle.
And the company is hiring, with an additional employee starting last month, and at least one position based in the RTP lab currently open.
“Being in RTP is exciting, as it is one of the ag core centers in North America,” said Tuttle. “RTP has a lot of ag capability, knowledge and competency, and it is great to be a part of it, as there is a great deal of support and a number of companies being a part of that ecosystem.”
That’s important to the company, said Tuttle, as the business model of the company is to drive discovery, not to commercialize its intellectual property directly. Commercialization of the new modes of action that 5Metis may discover would come through partnerships, Webb explained
“We are really focusing on that new mode of action discovery phase,” said Webb. “We design, discover compounds, optimize them, confirm safety and efficacy, and are providing new modes of action for farmers.”
That means the future for the company will rely on what Webb described as “the translation from design and synthesis of the compound, to biological studies for efficacy confirmation,” then partnering with companies to further develop the compounds to be commercialized.
“To be able to combine specialized knowledge in natural products and specialized knowledge in boron chemistry is the key differentiation,” said Green. “We’re going to combine those capabilities and see how we can create change in the properties that we can bring to partners.”
“Not to go to market ourselves,” said Webb. “But rather to be the discovery engine for these companies, on the path to commercialization.”