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Agtech Startup Crop Enhancement Reaps $8.5M for Plant Coating Tech

Xconomy Boston — 

Pesticides are a challenging agricultural problem, because rain washes them off of plants and the resulting runoff can poison other plants, animals, and water systems. Agricultural biotech startup Crop Enhancement is testing a plant protection product that could reduce pesticide use and perhaps do away with these chemical treatments altogether. Today, the company is announcing it has raised $8.5 million in venture capital funding to advance its work.

MLS Capital and 1955 Capital co-led the Series B round for Cambridge, MA-based Crop Enhancement. Also participating was Bandgap Ventures, which joined previous investor Phoenix Venture Partners. CEO Kevin Chen says the round was oversubscribed, leaving the company with its pick of investors.

Crop Enhancement’s technology is a microscopic film that coats a plant and forms a protective barrier against pests. The company’s initial work was in cocoa trees, which are a favorite of the insect Conopomorpha cramerella (cocoa pod borer). The larvae of these pests tunnel into the tree’s fruit and feed on it. Though farmers spray insecticides frequently, Chen says, these chemicals are ineffective due to the heavy and frequent rainfall in the tropical regions where cocoa grows. But Crop Enhancement found that its sprayable film, called “CropCoat,” worked well to protect cocoa pods.

“Our thought was if we could prevent the insect from getting to its food source, we could solve the problem,” Chen says.

The idea of using coatings and protective barriers is a familiar one to farmers. These days, seeds are often coated with antimicrobials, fungicides, and sometimes even beneficial microbes prior to planting. Agricultural fabrics have a place as barriers against frost, weeds, erosion, and insects. Crop Enhancement is bringing the concept of protective barriers directly to the leaves, stems, fruit, and seeds of a plant. But CropCoat’s origins are not in crop protection.

Crop Enhancement emerged from Soane Labs, a Cambridge incubator that has spawned several startups from serial entrepreneur David Soane. Soane, who is Crop Enhancement’s founder and chief technology officer, says the common thread connecting his companies is using “green chemistry” to address unmet needs. For example, Soane Energy developed products that help make energy extraction cleaner and more efficient. CropCoat’s development pathway was paved by earlier work done at NanoPaper, Soane’s most recent startup. Working with trees, that Cambridge company uses polymer chemistry and microparticle science to try to make paper production greener and less toxic.

“Finding polymers or advanced material that would impact soil and plant surfaces turned out to be a direct extension of that work,” Soane says. “Life is very interesting in that once you’re involved in something, another door opens for you.”

CropCoat’s composition is proprietary but Soane describes it as a combination of organic and inorganic components found in nature. The coating is made into a concentrated suspension, which makes it easier for shipping. On a farm, it can be stirred into a tank of water and then loaded into backpack sprayers. The film resists being washed off or rubbed off; Soane says it’s also elastic, which allows it to grow with a fruit. He says the coating is a “platform technology” that could eventually carry additional features, such as a natural insecticide.

Chen and Soane say CropCoat holds the potential to … Next Page »

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