How a Bill Gates-backed startup plans to save farming with A.I.


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When you read about A.I. in this newsletter, you usually don’t bat an eye. A.I. is “artificial intelligence,” that decades-old discipline in the field of computer science that’s (finally) showing some real promise lately.

But there’s another A.I. out there, one that’s been in development for centuries, or even millennia. It’s the shorthand for the “active ingredient” in agricultural herbicides, fungicides, and insecticides.

Which, of course, begs the question: Can improving A.I. help improve A.I.? Or is that A.I. improving A.I.? You know what I mean.

That is, the global agriculture industry has been relying on a lot of the same active ingredients to fight pests and diseases for many decades now. And, just like with human diseases getting more resistant to antibiotics, the crop-destroying villains are getting more immune and harder to kill. Throw in the growing (and hungry) global population and the complications of climate change, and you’ve got a world-class challenge, one that’s caught the attention of Bill and Melinda Gates lately.

That’s where Jacqueline Heard comes in. I’m not sure how many people have a PhD in biology plus an MBA from M.I.T. plus a post-doc fellowship at Harvard Medical School studying agricultural genetics, but that’s a lot of years of school. After putting her talents to work as a scientist for Monsanto for almost a dozen years, Heard has a new role. Today’s the day her three-year-old startup, Enko Chem, emerges from stealth mode to announce what it’s all about. And what it’s about is A.I. and A.I.

Enko and her team are trying to use some of the most cutting-edge machine learning techniques to sort through millions, or even billions, of chemical compounds to find promising candidates for new active ingredients. If that sounds familiar, it’s because that is the model that the pharmaceutical industry has been pursuing to find new drugs for humans more quickly and at much lower cost.

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What worked for pharma should work for agriculture, too, the CEO says. “Pharma has de-risked this technology,” Heard explained to me over the phone this week. “You see it in evidence of licenses, with large pharma companies bringing the technology in house. It’s been a very exciting development in drug discovery.”

Enko’s caught the attention of the Gates’ foundation and other major venture capitalists. On Friday, the startup announced its series B funding of $45 million, led by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation alongside Anterra Capital, the Rabo Food & Agri Innovation Fund, Finistere Ventures, Novalis LifeSciences, Germin8 Ventures, and TO Ventures Food.

In its first three years, Enko proved that the model should work and struck partnerships to fill in some gaps, like licensing a massive database of compounds to feed its algorithms. Still, actual products remain five or six years away, Heard estimates. “There are a ton of things that can go wrong between now and the launch of …read more

Source:: Fortune


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