The Danforth Center is partnering with Wells Fargo and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory to participate in the Wells Fargo Innovation Incubator, IN2. The first ag cohort of companies will partner with our Principal Investigators to test and validate their technologies. For the next month, we will be sharing the stories behind these companies in a weekly blog series.

While many insects are beneficial to our environment, there are some insects that are classified as pests. These insect pests impact every person on our planet: nearly 20% of crops are lost each year to insect damage. Furthermore, we spend hundreds of billions of dollars around the globe each year to fight insect damage.

The need for new pest management technologies that are effective, affordable, and sustainable to the environment and human health is urgent and widespread. 

Bala Venkata, Ph.D. believes he has a solution. Bala is a founder of the startup RNAissance Ag, a company that spun-out of the Danforth Center following successful research funded by Tech Accel’s Path to Commercialization program.  RNAissance Ag is developing a platform to discover new pest control agents that do not harm the environment, humans or beneficial insects, like bees.

Bala Venkata, PhD, founder of RNAissance Ag

RNAissance Ag is using RNAi (“I” for interference) technology that is not new, but what is new is the company’s discovery of novel mechanisms to target lepidoptera pests on a wide-range of crops. Previously, lepidoptera pests have been resistant to RNAi technology, and responsible for extensive losses each year for farmers. The company will use machine learning and unique software algorithms to analyze large digital image, and bioinformatics data sets to enable discovery of specific and effective biological pesticide candidates at a faster pace and lower cost than has been possible in the past. This biological specificity comes from small RNA molecules that are designed to target insect pests in precise interactions when ingested.  Beneficial insects, like bee pollinators and butterflies, suffer no impact.  Farmers, their employees and consumers will not experience negative effects, either.

The motivation for founding RNAissance Ag is rooted in Bala’s family history. He grew up in India within an extended family that benefited from the Green Revolution in agriculture, “I have witnessed first-hand how technology can profoundly improve the lives of farmers. It can break the cycle of subsistence and allow kids to complete an education, even up to a college degree, because their parents had sufficient income and did not need their children to head to the cotton fields each season to spray their crop against insect pests.” Bala’s own father was the first in his dairy farming family to be college educated as a result of the improved financial gain of his grandfather’s farm.

Through IN2, Bala will have the opportunity to work with Noah Fahlgren, Ph.D., the Danforth Center’s Data Science Facility director, to validate the RNAissance Ag technology. Noah began his early Ph.D. work in the field of RNA silencing and quickly moved into bioinformatics away from lab bench work. He now leads a team that focuses on computational biology.  The Data Science Facility at the Danforth Center serves as a resource to many of the scientific teams developing software tools to extract meaningful patterns and information from large image sets.  Noah chose to participate in the IN2 program because “The project promises to enable all three of the components of the Danforth mission: feeding the hungry, improving environment, and developing the economy of St. Louis,” he explained.

The IN2 RNAissance project at the Danforth Center aims to accomplish three components of a high-throughput screening platform to identify biological insecticides:

  1. Use digital phenotyping to analyze large data sets of images of two target insect pests and host plant interactions to identify signatures of early insect damage and capture the visual signatures of RNA pesticide candidates.
  2. Develop and train software algorithms that can sift through large image data sets to identify effective pesticide RNAs from among large numbers of candidates, avoiding false negatives and false positives.
  3. Use computational biology to develop rules for better design of future RNA pesticides that will predict both sensitivity that will determine the quantity of RNA needed to kill target insect pests (and thus ultimately determine the cost to farmers) and specificity that will allow targeting of only insect pests while leaving beneficial insects alone.

Bala is excited to participate in the IN2 program because it is a unique opportunity. It provides both funding and the opportunity to collaborate on scientific research with a well-respected institution. If RNAissance’s project is successful, results will provide validation to reduce risks and make the company more attractive to specific investors.  Even more, anticipated breakthroughs in RNAi technology could enable promising biological pesticides and digital tools to finally reach farmers and deliver on the environmental benefits of reducing water contamination from toxic runoff, a feature of current chemical pesticides.

Bala is ready to be a part of a new green revolution built on precision technologies and breakthroughs in biology that empowers farmers to manage their crop production in environmentally friendly and financially viable ways.