With ‘DNA bar code’ — and $140M — Mystic startup looks to change farming

Photo of Alexander Soule
An Albany-area farm owned by the commissioner of the New York State Department of Agriculture Richard Ball, pictured. In neighboring Connecticut, Enko Chem has raised $140 million to use artificial intelligence in developing new herbicides and pesticides to improve farm yields. (Will Waldron/Times Union)

An Albany-area farm owned by the commissioner of the New York State Department of Agriculture Richard Ball, pictured. In neighboring Connecticut, Enko Chem has raised $140 million to use artificial intelligence in developing new herbicides and pesticides to improve farm yields. (Will Waldron/Times Union)

Will Waldron / Times Union

With $70 million in new commitments announced this past week, a Stonington startup plans to hire 50 people in the coming two years as it explores applying artificial intelligence to identify new compounds for improving crop yields.

The agri-tech firm is making its move as farmers deal with intensifying weather patterns and new regulations on pesticides and herbicides.

Enko Chem, with 40 employees, was founded by Jacqueline Heard, who spent nearly a dozen years scouting new product ideas for chemical giant Monsanto. She later joined Anterra Capital, a Boston area venture capital firm which is an Enko investor.

Enko opened a headquarters last year in a former Monsanto facility equipped with product development greenhouses, adjacent to the Denison Pequotsepos Nature Center just south of Mystic Aquarium.

The company has an agreement to develop products with a company called Nufarm, which opened a factory in Illinois three years ago — but in time, Enko plans to create its own products, according to a spokesperson.

In a Wednesday blog post, Heard referenced the increasing impact of climate and meteorological events on farm yields, including this month’s punishing heat wave in Europe.

“Farmers have very limited options to safely protect their fields from crippling pest resistance, superweeds and new diseases, and government agencies around the world are moving to reduce and ban their existing options,” Heard wrote in the blog post. “Crop protection innovation is not keeping pace with these needs.”

Heard described the impact of artificial intelligence in sequencing genetic codes on a new wave of products for crop innovation, in a July 2021 episode of the “Ag Tech ... So What?” podcast.

“Reading and writing genetic codes has been incredibly influential,” Heard said during the podcast. “Being able to encode information in a DNA bar code attached to a molecule changed the game.”

Enko has $140 million in total funding based on Heard’s vision, with The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation an early Enko backer. The nonprofit tends to invest in companies that promise to lift up people in lower-income countries and communities by solving knotty problems.

Connecticut Innovations has invested $3.6 million in Enko to date. An official at CI, the state’s quasi-public venture capital investment agency, said it’s confident Enko will be able to attract the right people, noting Pfizer’s success over the years at its massive research facility in Groton.

“That area of the state certainly isn’t as well-populated as New Haven and the I-91 corridor, but you’ve got Pfizer there and the building was a large part of what brought them to Connecticut — it was available and it would have taken a long time to build,” said Kevin Crowley, senior managing director of investments for Connecticut Innovations. “It was exactly what they needed. All the right pieces came together at the right time, including the building, her, and the Gates Foundation.”

Alex.Soule@scni.com; 203-842-2545; @casoulman