New Technology Gaining Traction

While many insects are beneficial to our environment, others are not. Each year, farmers spend billions of dollars on control measures, yet nearly twenty percent of all crops are still lost to insect damage. Danforth Center Senior Research Scientist Bala P. Venkata, Ph.D., developed a novel solution - one that does not harm the environment, humans, or beneficial insects like bees. 

In January 2019, Bala co-founded the biopesticide startup RNAissance Ag as a subsidiary of TechAccel, a private technology and equity development company in agriculture and animal health. RNAissance Ag offers targeted pest control using RNA interference (RNAi), including against pests such as the Diamondback Moth. No previous RNAi product has been effective against the Diamondback Moth, which is estimated to cause more than $4 billion in crop losses annually.

Bala Venkata, PhD, Senior Research Scientist

As a scientist, Bala believes in developing, precision-based sustainable biopesticides for empowering farmers to manage their crop production in environmentally friendly and financially viable ways.  And he is motivated by his own on-farm experiences in India. “I have seen first-hand how technology can profoundly improve the lives of farmers. Our novel technology aims to do just that," said Venkata. 

In 2019 RNAissance Ag was selected to participate in the first ag-tech cohort in the Wells Fargo Innovation Incubator (IN2), a partnership between the Wells Fargo Foundation, the National Renewable Energy Laboratory and the Danforth Center designed to help early-stage companies conduct research to further develop and validate innovative solutions.  This unique collaborative program provided RNAissance Ag the opportunity to work with Noah Fahlgren, Ph.D., the Danforth Center’s Data Science Facility Director, to use digital and computational biology tools to accelerate the development of RNAissance Ag insecticide for field trials.  

With support from Tech Accel and the IN2, the company has experienced rapid growth and in June RNAissance Ag completed an asset acquisition of RNAgri Inc., a St Louis-based ag biotech startup. RNAgri has developed a platform for the cost-effective production of RNA for use in topical RNAi products, including biopesticides. The RNAgri platform will add manufacturing capacity to the pesticide design and development efforts.

“These investments demonstrate our belief in the potential of RNAi to fundamentally change agriculture,” said Michael Helmstetter, Ph.D., founder, president and CEO of TechAccel.  “We are committed to developing sustainable, safe and effective technology to prevent crop losses, increase yields and protect the environment.” 

Today, having completed blind third-party validation at greenhouse scale, RNAissance Ag is currently conducting multiple field trials against Diamondback Moth. The IN2 funding was key to allowing them to conduct field trials in an accelerated fashion. The company has an expanding development pipeline targeting additional pests, and its designs also have applications as pesticidal traits in crop seeds.