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RESEARCH TRIANGLE PARK – Biopesticide startup Innatrix is on a quest to develop environmentally friendly products to control crop diseases and pests.
The Research Triangle Park-based business hopes to secure $3 million in equity financing by the end of 2023 to support those efforts. Included in the mix are field trials, product manufacturing, a regulatory package submission and the expansion of its small staff.
The company already has received a total of $1.5 million this year from the National Science Foundation and United Soybean Board that’s not part of the fundraising goal.
Innatrix uses peptides to block disease-promoting proteins, and RNA interference (RNAi) to deactivate genes essential to the survival of pests in crops. These technologies offer new biological solutions to a difficult old problem – one traditionally tackled through the use, and often overuse, of chemical-based pesticides.
CEO Jiarui Li, Ph.D., said the company has initially directed its unique peptide platform at three core products: InnalB to prevent potato late blight; InnaNema to combat soybean cyst nematode; and InnaHLB to address citrus greening. The combined U.S. market to manage these infestations approaches $800 million annually.
The platform uses machine learning and other artificial intelligence tools to identify promising molecular targets and to generate leads to disrupt their function, Li explained. It goes after the virulence factors that must be present for pathogens to cause crop diseases.
Progress in 2023
He said Innatrix “has made a lot of progress” in advancing its technology in 2023. Field trials for InnalB – the company’s biopesticide candidate for potato late blight – are underway in North Carolina and Wisconsin, with data expected as early as September. The goal is to have InnalB ready for market by 2026.
The company plans to eventually sell its biological products to agricultural chemical companies or pesticide distributors who will dispense the crop treatments to farmers.
Innatrix also is intensifying its regulatory efforts by supplementing its biochemical product application data and by filing new patent submissions.
The company plans to add two more key personnel – a vice president of business development and a formulation scientist – to help move its new programs forward. Its current eight-person team has more than 150 years of collective experience in agricultural product development and commercialization.
The benefits of biopesticides
Li said Innatrix’s peptide platform should be as effective as conventional chemical treatments, with the added advantage of an improved safety and environmental profile. The technology also has the potential to be transferable to other crops and pests, and it may work successfully to control invasive weeds.
The biological approach to crop protection offers other benefits as well. The pathway to regulatory approval is much easier, so the time to get a new product to market could be cut by close to two-thirds, Li pointed out. And average development costs could be reduced by almost 95%.
He noted that biopesticides also play a pivotal role in managing disease resistance to chemical pesticides by attacking new molecular targets. They can be used effectively in tandem with conventional treatments to improve pest and disease control and decrease the likelihood that any of the products will lose their effectiveness.
Prominent agricultural biologicals industry expert Pam Marrone, Ph.D., said biopesticides are rapidly gaining acceptance as more farmers become familiar with how they work, environmental and other benefits become clearer, and as disease resistance to conventional pesticides creates more of a problem. “Biopesticides is a growing global industry,” she noted. “Farmers’ perception of the technology is improving, and resistance management is becoming more important to them.
“I don’t see huge barriers to Innatrix’s success,” added Marrone, who serves as the company’s senior advisor for biological product development. “Within two or three years, Innatrix started from ground zero and progressed to field trials and validation of their platform. That’s pretty remarkable. And the team is fantastic.”
Innatrix was founded in 2013 by then-CEO Marshall Edgell, Ph.D., a long-time member of the microbiology faculty at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Li joined the company as research director and senior scientist in 2018 and was named CEO in 2020.
The North Carolina Biotechnology Center provided a $250,000 loan to Innatrix in 2021 to develop biopesticides to treat late blight disease in potatoes and tomatoes. NCBiotech currently is considering a second loan to the business.
“We have been tremendously impressed with the progress Innatrix has made over a short period of time and are delighted to support the company in that journey,” said Paul Ulanch, Ph.D., senior director of focused initiatives at NCBiotech. “Biopesticides have become an important tool for farmers, and we look forward to great things from Innatrix in the future.”