The combination of a growing population and the creep of crop pathogens into new parts of the world due to climate change, is increasing the already urgent need to protect agriculture. Ascribe Bioscience, a Cornell-based startup and UNY I-Corps alumni, has won a $750,000 National Science Foundation (NSF) Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) Phase II award to field test its unique pathogen-fighting technology.
The company’s product, Phytalix, is a natural compound which soil-dwelling roundworms use to communicate with one another. Plants can sense these communication compounds to a degree, giving them some time to launch an immune response. “Basically, pathogens use these molecules to communicate and the plants are eavesdropping,” said Murli Manohar, co-founder and CTO of Ascribe Bioscience.
By treating crop seeds with Phytalix before they grow into plants, the company aims to prime their immune systems against certain pathogens so that they’re better equipped to ward off illness when the time comes, similar to humans’ use of vaccines. Phytalix is unique from commercial pesticides since it doesn’t kill microbes, thereby avoiding emergence of evolutionary resistance to the chemicals. And unlike live microbe-based pesticides, it doesn’t introduce non-native or genetically engineered microbes to an ecosystem.
The company has seen its product’s success against strains of bacteria, fungi, and viruses responsible for devastating plant diseases in the lab and greenhouse. Phase II funding will allow the startup to test Phytalix’s efficacy on protecting soybeans and wheat in the field. The team, additionally made up of Boyce Thompson Institute (BTI) scientists and Cornell faculty members Frank Schroeder and Daniel Klessig and local entrepreneur Jay Farmer, will also test its technology’s compatibility with commercial pesticides to see if it works more reliably in conjunction with chemicals.
Ascribe Bioscience got its start in 2017. Its founders were skeptical of the National Science Foundation I-Corps Teams program at first; they were certain they already knew the market for their tech. After being convinced to enroll in 2018 by a member of the senior leadership at BTI, and after having participated in a regional program sponsored by the McGovern Center for Venture Development in the Life Sciences – a Cornell business incubator that Ascribe has since joined – the team now sings the I-Corps program’s praises.
“Things changed as soon as we started talking to customers,” said Manohar, who is also a senior research associate at BTI. A major tenet of I-Corps Teams is conducting customer interviews. “In the end we all realized the value of I-Corps. It was where our market research really started and it put us in the right direction to apply for funding,” he said.
Ascribe Bioscience has built on its successes over time. After completing I-Corps in 2018, the company applied for and received Phase I funding to determine the best concentration of its product to use in seed treatments. The startup then participated in the NSF’s Beat-the-Odds Boot Camp, a program for Phase I awardees which builds upon lessons learned during the I-Corps Teams course.
The way to get Phytalix into the hands of farmers, though, was not clear to Manohar’s team until its participation in an “Ag-Corps” short course in January 2020 organized by the Upstate New York and Southwest I-Corps nodes and held at the American Farm Bureau Federation’s 2020 Annual Convention and Trade Show in Austin, Texas. The food and ag-focused Regional I-Corps Course prompted participating researchers like Manohar to “get out of the lab” and conduct customer interviews with farmers and other professionals in food and agriculture.
Manohar recounted one conversation he had with a farmer about Phytalix. “He was very skeptical of startup companies. He was like, ‘Do these things even work? I’m contacted by people every other day. Until somebody in my community vouches for it, I’m not going to use it’,” he said. His conversations with other farmers were similar. The experience made it clear that the people Ascribe Bioscience needed to convince were not the farmers themselves, but the scientists, consultants, and farm bureaus whom they trust.
The team’s customer discovery and networking processes inspired Manohar to reach out to the owner of a seed company in the Pacific Northwest. “He became a fan of ours. He’s now our partner, collaborator, and advisor for life!” he said. “I wouldn’t have done that if I had not done I-Corps.”