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AgTech startup AgBiome lands Gates Foundation grant to research pest-resistant crops

AgBiome, an agricultural technology startup based in Research Triangle Park, has landed its second round of funding from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to create a tolerance in plants against the destructive sweet potato weevil.

The research aims to use AgBiome’s technology, which focuses on the development of natural fungicides and microbes to control pests, to make sweet potatoes in sub-Saharan Africa resistant to the destructive weevil.

Once a plant becomes infected by a sweet potato weevil, it is no longer fit for human or animal consumption — a result that can have devastating consequences for small farmers who grow sweet potatoes to feed their families or sell at the market.

This is AgBiome’s second step in a multi-phase project it agreed to do with the Gates Foundation on developing a treatment for sweet potato weevils. Phase one research used AgBiome’s technology to identify what microbes were effective at resisting the weevils. The company isolated more than 25,000 new microbes, including seven bacteria and 15 fungi that had some effectiveness.

This next phase will test those microbes in greenhouse and field trials.

The project could one day benefit farmers beyond Africa. Sweet potato weevils are spread throughout the world, said Brooke Bissinger, who leads the project for AgBiome.

They are even prevalent in Louisiana, where the company is doing some of its research.

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A sweet potato in Uganda infected by sweet potato weevils. Courtesy of AgBiome

“For us in the U.S., it is a problem because it reduces yield,” Bissinger said. “But in the developing world where people rely on sweet potatoes as a major food source, it can become a food security issue.”

The company is not allowed to do research on sweet potato weevils in North Carolina — the largest producer of sweet potatoes in the U.S. — in case they were to accidentally introduce the weevil to the state. While the weevils could do damage in the state, the weather here typically gets too cold for them to survive, Bissinger said.

Founded in 2012, AgBiome has brought in $136 million in funding, according to Crunchbase, and the company employs around 100 people. The Gates Foundation is also an investor in the company.

Bissinger said the foundation’s grant allows AgBiome to work on areas of research that might not be profitable.

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AgBiome scientists working with farmers in Uganda to find a resistance to sweet potato weevils. Courtesy of AgBiome

“Usually, an agriculture company would not be doing this kind of work, because these are pests that are issues in places that are usually low income,” she said. “Usually agriculture companies are looking at corn, soybeans and major row crops. We probably wouldn’t be focusing on this particular pest if it wasn’t for the funding from the Gates Foundation. But it is a great opportunity to do something as a humanitarian effort and help farmers outside of row crops.”

AgBiome did not disclose the amount of the grant. Bissinger said nine full-time employees work on the project, which will include travel to Uganda to do tests and talk to farmers.

“In sub-Saharan Africa, 90% of people are farming on their own land on small plots,” Bissinger said. “In Africa, where they don’t have pesticides or good pest control measures, they can have a 100% loss of crops, which can lead to them struggling to feed families and make excess money by selling at the market.”

Bissinger said she visited 150 farms in Uganda and all but one of them was a small family-run farm. The one commercial farm she saw would be small compared to those in the U.S.

If phase two of the project is successful, AgBiome will move onto a third phase where they will work on how to scale a solution and distribute it.

This story was produced with financial support from a coalition of partners led by Innovate Raleigh as part of an independent journalism fellowship program. The N&O maintains full editorial control of the work. Learn more; go to bit.ly/newsinnovate

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Zachery Eanes is the Innovate Raleigh reporter for The News & Observer and The Herald-Sun. He covers technology, startups and main street businesses, biotechnology, and education issues related to those areas.
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