Amazing Beach Head Exploration Experience through NSF1 with Three Women Entrepreneurs!
Women In Agriculture: I hear our global folks are eagerly waiting for our next issue of Women in Agriculture, which will be released soon. In the meantime, I have an amazing story to share about three amazing women, I worked with recently on NSF project. During this exercise, I also have the pleasure of meeting innovators such as Innatrix. A company developing protein ligands for pest management and other uses and Pathotrak, which has a method to more rapidly detect food-borne pathogens. The stories about their experiences in the I-Corps program are told here.
When the co-founder and CEO of Pheronym, Dr. Fatma Kaplan, asked me to be their industry mentor for the NSF Innovation-Corp (I-Corp), little did I know what we were in for: Seven weeks, 100 customer interviews and many hours later, we have all gained a better appreciation for the market and customers we intend to sell into. Although I have deep knowledge of the market and grower and distributor customers, it was illuminating to learn new things. Rather than me being a spoiler, I’ll let three women entrepreneurs tell you in her own words.
If any one of you wish to find BeachHead through an elaborate process, pl contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org , we will be happy to help.
Executive Chair and Partner at Global BioAg Linkages
Experiences of Dr. Fatma Kaplan co-founder and CEO of Pheronym:
Pheronym’s amazing 7-week journey at the NSF I-Corps teams program
The challenges, up and downs, surprising discoveries, and meeting amazing people on the way to completing 100 customer discovery interviews. Pheronym is developing pheromones from microscopic roundworms, nematodes, to control agricultural pests; nematodes, and insects. Our end users are growers, conventional and organic farmers. Our task was very simple: “Talk to 100 growers to understand their pain points with respect to difficult pests”. Traditionally, at I-corps participants get out of the building or go to conferences to meet people for in-person interviews. We could easily go to a few grower conferences and a couple of industry conferences and maybe meet 20- 25 people at each conference. How hard could it be talking to 100 growers?
Getting 100 interviews was a real challenge for a number of reasons. First, due to Coronavirus, we couldn’t “get out of the building” to meet our customers for in-person interviews at the farm or at grower conferences. So, we did the next best thing, phone calls and videoconferencing. On the bright side, virtually getting out of the building opened up the whole world. Second, we quickly learned August and September were bad months to talk to people. Farmers were out in the field, harvesting their crops. We had one grower that couldn’t talk to us for two weeks because he was swamped with the harvest. We finally talked to him after three weeks of telephone tag. Harvest wasn’t the only challenge. Lots of growers didn’t want to talk to us because they thought we were trying to sell them something. Thanks to our industry mentor Dr. Pam Marrone’s network we were able to interview 25 growers.
We still had 75 interviews to go! As entrepreneurs, we had to be optimistic and look on the bright side. We considered this a mixed blessing because we got the opportunity to see the whole agriculture pest control ecosystem through many different points of view. We interviewed potential distributors/channel partners, seed companies, crop consultants, pest control advisors (PCAs), potential partners for manufacturing, land grant university extension specialists, Ag VCs, Ag input companies, conventional and organic growers. One of the first things we learned was that the agricultural pest control ecosystem is a lot more complex than we had thought. It was not as simple as manufacturing a great product and selling it to the farmer to solve their difficult pest problem. There were many forces that can affect a product’s successful market entry. This is also where we learned many lessons.
Everyone had a different take on what was important. For example, Husk fly, a walnut insect pest. To lots of people, it is not a problem because it doesn’t damage the walnut. To a grower, it is a huge problem because it stains the walnut shell, reducing the value of the crop and lowering the grower’s income.
Dealing with big companies is complex and slow compared to small and midsize companies. Let’s start with “How do you bring a new technology to a big company’s attention?” At first glance, you may think that the R&D scientists would be the ones bringing new technologies to a big company. To our surprise, it was the technology scouts or business development people who brought the new technology and products to the companies’ attention. The R&D scientists in big companies are important influencers and their opinion is asked for new technology or products. The decision-making process is very complex and includes many people from multiple departments, including R&D scientists. The big company’s decision-making timeline is longer which is anywhere from one to three years. This is not an exaggeration. For example, it took us 6 weeks just to get permission to interview an R&D scientist from a big agri-input company. The big companies would like to test the new product/technology in-house first for a few years compared to small companies which may be OK with studies done by reputable university laboratories and peer-reviewed published results. The take-home message was that we need to have at least a couple of years runway to partner with a big company and also backup plans in case the deal falls through.
Some major players that we learned about in the interviews are pest control advisors (PCAs). PCAs are really key players in the pest control ecosystem. They can make or break your product entry. There were two major types of PCAs; employees of ag-input distributors or independent PCAs. They are considered influencers but they are more than that. They have existing relationships with the farmers. They monitor pests and make recommendations. Depending on the farm size they may be employed by farmers and be a part of the decision-making committee. They also conduct field trials for new products for farmers. Our take-home message was that we need to know PCAs and work with PCAs. Finally, everyone agreed on the decision criteria for a pest control product: Efficacy and cost. How they determined efficacy was very different between specialty crops and row crops. For specialty crops quality is important, for row crops quantity is important. Row crops are very price sensitive. Specialty crops are also price-sensitive but not as sensitive as row crops. This was critical information for our value proposition; it needs to be customized depending on the market segment. Above lessons were only the tip of the iceberg we could tell you at this moment, but not the last!
Identifying the beachhead market at the NSF I-Corps Teams
It’s incredible how much the insight from one hundred interviews can focus your market entry strategy and position your startup for success. The first week we interviewed Land O Lakes. We were surprised to learn the number of acres infested with soybean cyst nematode, a microscopic roundworm that parasitizes plant roots and reduces yield. We learned that farmers need eco-friendly solutions for soybean cyst nematode, and seed treatments are an excellent solution. We immediately realized that seed treatment was our ultimate market. However, it requires a long time to get to market. Just the field trials need 2-3 years for the channel partners to conduct. Luckily, the second week, we identified our beachhead market, organic specialty crop growers.
Focus on the crop or the pest? For the past three years, whenever we have talked to agriculture investors, they always asked, “Which crop are you targeting?” After talking to many growers, pest control advisors (PCAs), university extension specialists, and subject matter experts, we learned about the diversity of the pests in different regions. For example, strawberries have plant-parasitic nematode problems in Florida; spotted wing drosophila (SWD) pupae, thrips (depending on location), the Lewis spider mite (high temperatures), whitefly, aphid, and mildew in California; white grubs and fungus gnats in Mexico; and western flower thrips in greenhouses in Ireland. Turfgrass is another excellent example. First of all, turf grass seems like the same plant everywhere, but it has special varieties for different parts of the country and various applications. On top of that, turfgrass has different pests in northern and southern US. White grub is a common pest and significant problem for the eastern US, but not important for California because it is too dry. Mole crickets and plant-parasitic nematodes (sting, lance, root-knot nematode) are major problems in the southeast US. Billbugs, caterpillars, cutworms, armyworms, and cranefly are problems for the northern US. Even within the same state, a crop might have different pest problems. In California, Argentine ants are a problem for citrus in Riverside, but not in the San Joaquin Valley, where growers have a problem with citrus thrips. The variety of specialty crops makes choosing a specific crop very difficult. There are many specialty crops, each with their farming practices which could easily affect the pest control application procedure, hence the success of the product entry. As you are guessing, our choice is the pest.
Like the crops, there are many pests. Which one? We developed criteria to select a pest that can establish our product in the market and scale simultaneously. The pest should be challenging for organic and conventional farmers in the specialty crop and row crop markets. The pest should be a generalist, meaning it is a problem for multiple crops. It should also be a problem in numerous locations. Finally, our product should offer a solution to this unmet need. Based on these four criteria, we analyzed our 100 interviews from NSF I-Corps Teams and 30 interviews from NSF Beat-the-Odds Boot camp. Two pests jumped at us: thrips and plant-parasitic nematodes. Both thrips and root-knot nematodes are generalist pests that attack many different crops and have very few effective treatments. Thrips is an insect pest, a vector for many viruses and resistant to many conventional pesticides. It is also a global problem for conventional and organic farmers. Plant-parasitic nematodes, particularly root-knot nematode (RKN), attack many different crops. The chemical nematicides are heavily regulated. RKN, a sedentary nematode like soybean cyst nematode, presents a tremendous unmet need. Both conventional and organic farmers are looking for alternative solutions.
We still have one more hurdle on our way!
Agriculture is seasonal! We had a difficult time talking to growers In August and September because it was harvest time. What can we do to strengthen Pheronym against this
seasonality? This time we got lucky. Our first product, Nemastim , targets beneficial
nematodes’ efficacy to control insect pests. Beneficial nematodes are microscopic roundworms called entomopathogenic nematodes (EPNs), which are safe to other biocontrol organisms and humans. Environmental protection agency (EPA) considers them so safe that they do not regulate them as biopesticides. EPNs already have a market in the greenhouse growers’ market, which is in the same space as indoor agriculture where thrips are also a problem. To top it off, we have done successful greenhouse trials with third parties on two agriculturally important pest insects (pecan weevil and citrus weevil) using two commercial EPNs, Steinernema feltiae and S. carpocapsae. Using beneficial nematodes to control thrips in greenhouses and indoor farms allows us to get into the market within a year for thrips control instead of 2-3 years for plant-parasitic nematodes. So our beachhead market is organic specialty crops in greenhouses and indoors to control thrips. While scaling thrips control, you can already predict what is next in our product pipeline; pheromones for plant-parasitic nematode control for seed treatment.
We cannot end this article without mentioning two important intangible benefits of the NSF I-corps program. First, we met amazing people with great technologies in the ag-space (Innatrix, PathOtrak, Artimus Robotics) and other spaces including (OPR Icy Regolith, Digital twin, Impressio) as part of the cohort. Also, the customer discovery interviews created a network of 100 people in the agriculture ecosystem who were very interested in our product development. The second was that NSF I-corps program provided us with a structure to develop our strategy: the Business Model Canvas (BMC). As an entrepreneur, you don’t know what you don’t know. The same way our industry mentor, Dr. Pam Marrone, does not know what we don’t know because everyone starts entrepreneurship from a very different place.
Authors: Dr. Fatma Kaplan is the CEO/CSO of Pheronym, an entrepreneur, and an accomplished scientist with experience in both biology and chemistry. She has a Ph.D. in Plant Molecular and Cellular Biology and postdoctoral training in Natural Product Chemistry with a focus on isolating biologically active compounds. Dr. Kaplan discovered the first sex pheromone of the nematode Caenorhabditis elegans. This work was published in Nature. Then she discovered that pheromones regulate other behaviors in both parasitic and beneficial nematodes. Dr. Kaplan conducted the first agricultural biocontrol experiment in Space at the International Space Station in 2020. She has very high impact publications and her dissertation (beta-amylase’s role during cold and heat shock) was cited in textbooks within 5 years of publication. Dr. Kaplan worked as a scientist at NASA, the National Magnetic Field Laboratory and the US Department of Agriculture — Agricultural Research Service.
Mr. Karl Cameron Schiller is the co-founder and COO of Pheronym. He is an experienced entrepreneur with a BA in economics and an M.Sc. in pharmaceutical economics. Mr. Schiller along with Dr. Kaplan conducted the first agricultural biocontrol experiment in Space at the International Space Station in 2020. Prior to Pheronym, he co-founded Kaplan Schiller Research LLC. and volunteered as president of a not for profit organization. In addition, he was a freelance consultant in pharmaceutical product development, cost-effectiveness analysis, modeling, and statistical analysis. His clients include the University of Florida, the University of Alabama, Florida Medicaid, and Pfizer. Dr. Kaplan and Mr. Schiller co-founded Pheronym to bring nematode pheromone technology to the market and to provide effective, non-toxic, sustainable pest control for farmers and gardeners.
My NSF I-Corps Experience :
By Heidi Leonard, Pathotrak Head of R&D
For Pathotrak, the NSF I-corps program was a rollercoaster journey, but an ultimately rewarding one. Pathotrak is revolutionizing food safety with their methodologies to reduce the time it takes to detect pathogens, like E. coli O157/H7 and Salmonella in food. Our end users are third party testing labs that analyze samples for food producers and processors trying to prevent recalls and foodborne illnesses. Our biggest question coming into the i-Corps program was “Who will be our first beachhead market?” We know that the testing labs serving the meat industry are our ultimate target, but also one of the more technologically difficult areas for us to tackle. Thus, we embarked on our I-Corps journey to determine which food producers have the biggest need for rapid pathogen detection and which industry would provide us with an initial entry point for commercialization.
We indulged ourselves in over 100 customer discovery interviews with those in the food industry and testing ecosystem. These interviews took us everywhere (virtually that is) – from large leafy greens companies to pharmaceutical testing labs to indoor farms. We discovered how vast this business ecosystem is and who the major decision makers are, as well as where the pain points for different sectors lie. On both a scientific and business development level, I personally became fascinated with the web of the supply chain in the food industry and learning about the needs of different people in different sectors. For example, we quickly discovered that the needs of small farmers selling at Sunday’s farmers market are entirely different than those of large salad mix processors supplying Costco. Or even more technically intriguing, the speed of pathogen testing for apples stored in controlled atmosphere warehouses is not nearly as critical as for short shelf-life romaine lettuce. The insights we gained were endless on that front.
Near interview number 85, we had some more intriguing discoveries, such as the large disconnects in the supply chain of the food industry. For example, large retailers want to sell the safest and freshest food, while implementing just-in-time inventory management; however, the resulting regulations they impose on their suppliers have a whole course of downstream economic and operational effects. After one interviewee tipped me off to check the packaging in the produce section to understand which companies supply which grocery stores, my trips to the grocery store turned into adventures in business development.
We were enthusiastic to begin the I-Corps program, but immediately encountered one challenge – pandemic-imposed social distancing during customer discovery. In previous years, participants conducted customer discovery interviews in-person, by physically leaving the building to attend conferences and chatting over coffee. This year, that was not the case. Amongst all the I-Corps teams, very few (if any) interviews were conducted physically face-to-face. We all relied on the virtual world. While some of us despised this, I surprisingly enjoyed the virtual aspect. It allowed me to connect with people I would not have otherwise. I joined virtual women in produce events, attended young farmer’s meetings, and got virtual tours on indoor farms. For me, not having the anxiety of leaving home for multiple days to go talk to strangers was a mental relief. Timing and planning suddenly became much easier and I did not need to entirely sacrifice my life outside of work to be a productive team member. However, connecting virtually comes with a learning curve, though like most things, practice makes perfect.
I felt fortunate to be part of the Pathotrak team during the I-Corps journey. Our CEO, Dr. Javier Atencia, with his enthusiasm and fearless cold calling, connected with certain groups in the industry and was even able to converse in Spanish for some interviews. Our calm and collected, Head of Engineering, Ethan Reggia, networked well with academics and extension officers. Our seasoned industry mentor, Bob Ferguson, brought and shared his seemingly endless connections and knowledge into the program with us. And I, trying to keep our team grounded and timely, seemed to click with women in produce and the produce industry in general. During this time, I unearthed the overwhelmingly supportive interest groups of women in tech and particularly, women in produce and ag. I wish more industries had this kind of home-grown and effective initiatives.
In my eyes, having a diverse team, where we all have different strengths and even different interests, highlighted the importance of diversity on a business development team. By connecting with different people and even asking questions in different ways, we were able to interview a variety of people of different backgrounds, resulting in more insightful interviews as a whole. If there is a big picture takeaway from the i-Corps program this is it – that having a diverse business development team (e.g., in background, expertise, personalities) is crucial for the company’s success. Having the same type of personalities and backgrounds on a business development team sets a company up for short-sighted failure.
While we went through our ups and downs during the NSF I-Corps program, we nevertheless gained invaluable knowledge from it. While not initially obvious, we now know for which types of producers and food processors we will be tailoring our technology and which accreditation process we will be using. We even have ideas for new markets to tackle in the future, determined key partners and strategies to achieve commercialization, and mapped out possible cost structures and revenue streams. The industry connections we made during the program are priceless, in addition to the interactions and interfacing with other I-Corps teams, particularly those in the ag space. Of course, none of this would have been possible without the NSF I-Corps program, support, and mentors – with which we were grateful to share this rollercoaster.
Author: Dr. Heidi Leonard is the Head of Research and Development for Pathotrak and an analytical/materials chemist by training with a passion for tackling problems in microbiology and biotechnology. Midway through her postdoctoral fellowship at the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) in Gaithersburg, Maryland, she joined the Pathotrak fleet and sailed into the business development world. She earned her PhD in Biotechnology and Food Engineering from the Technion – Israel Institute of Technology where she developed rapid methods for antimicrobial susceptibility testing. Her technology now resides in one of the largest Israeli medical centers for daily use. Prior to her international venture, Dr. Leonard earned her MS in chemistry at the University of California, San Diego while developing silicon-based therapeutics. She is also enrolled in the Johns Hopkins Carey School of Business MBA program and serves as president of the Mid-Atlantic Micro/Nano Alliance.
7 Weeks in I-Corps: Innatrix’s Journey:
By Madison Frye, Co-entrepreneurial Lead
Innatrix’s founder and CEO, Dr. Marshall Edgell, is an Emeritus Kenan Professor of Microbiology at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill where he worked and conducted research for 42 years. Some of his notable accomplishments include being on the team that discovered site-directed mutagenesis and being an independent discoverer of the cleavage properties of restriction enzymes. Most recently, another accomplishment is the invention of a continuous directed evolution system. This revolutionary technology is so powerful that Dr. Edgell decided to create Innatrix to capitalize on this invention. He was inspired by the advancements made in 2011 at the Harvard lab run by Dr. Liu. Dr. Liu and his colleagues created a phage-assisted continuous evolution platform to create proteins with high affinities to targets of interest. The selection system that Dr. Edgell was inspired to create is now patent-pending, with no infringement on the patent held by Dr. Liu and Harvard.
Innatrix was born out of Dr. Edgell’s directed evolution technology, of which the company can perform both continuously and non-continuously. In order to perform the continuous directed evolution Innatrix has invented an automated process through their proprietary technology called the EvoStatTM. This is a one-of-a-kind selection system that allows for the user to have advanced control and monitoring of the process, with the system automatically providing data plots on the browser interface. Reporting, recording, simulation, and remote access are all enabled by this technology. With the inclusion of infra-red and image processing-based monitoring it is possible to control different elements of the process. These elements include temperature, mixing, turbidity, medium supply, culture volumes, and flow rates. The EvoStatTM is also able to perform processes other than continuous directed evolution like phage-display and SIP-phage display, which expands their portfolio. This technology is what sets Innatrix apart from other protein evolution companies, and they have gained interest from numerous large ag biotech companies that want to collaborate with them.
The National Science Foundation’s I-Corps program began in August 2020 and allowed the company’s research director Dr. Jiarui Li, myself, Edward Richards, and Daniel Luo to embark on a journey that was like no other. Jiarui Li was the entrepreneurial lead, I was the co-entrepreneurial lead, Edward was our technical lead, and Daniel was the industry mentor. Beginning our journey in this program brought with it many great challenges, but even greater learnings. You are given the daunting task of reaching 100 customer interviews within 7 weeks. It seems like an impossible undertaking when the rate of response for a voice of customer campaign is usually less than 5%. Yet all 26 teams managed to meet this requirement, and Innatrix went above this base number. When you begin the I-Corps process you begin with an idea of who your company is, what your company does, and where your company is going. Early on you discover that all the things you believed to be true are now merely hypotheses, and you must validate these ideas through customer interviews.
As a graduate student with little familiarity in the agricultural field, this was a brand-new experience for me. I had developed prior experience with industry outreach through my graduate program, but not to the extent required by I-Corps. As a young professional, I was forced to get out of my comfort zone and make the cold calls that are necessary to receive responses from industry professionals. Over time, I became better at fielding questions and providing concise answers when responding to prompts from the teaching team at NSF. I also met some pretty extraordinary people. These were not only the customers I interviewed, but the other teams participating in the program. Their journeys and lessons learned actually helped Innatrix make crucial decisions and modify our business model canvas.
One of the biggest lessons I learned was the importance of networking. It is through this method that I was able to obtain contacts in the agricultural field, and through these contacts I met even more people. In the first 4 weeks of the program, I focused on finding contacts who were on the research and development side of agricultural companies like BASF or Syngenta. At first, I was able to lean on my personal connections to plan interviews, but this network was quickly exhausted. I had to think abstractly and come up with new ways of finding customers. I took advantage of my access to library databases to obtain contact information and searched social media for other avenues to customers.
After 4 weeks of contacting these customers, Innatrix made the decision to switch to a products-based business model after talking with key industry leaders in the agricultural space. This large pivot from a service-based company to a products-based company also meant a pivot in the type of customers we were contacting. The end user for Innatrix became farmers, and I was tasked with locating, contacting, and interviewing these customers. This opened the door for more conversations with the farmers themselves and learning a great deal about agriculture from their perspective. As mentioned by a friend I met through customer interviews, the agriculture industry is an unforgiving one, but is all the more rewarding when your hard work pays off.
Overall, from my experience in the I-Corps program I learned that to be successful you must be a resourceful self-starter, as the answers will not be given to you. As a professional I have grown more confident in myself, more knowledgeable about agriculture and the business model canvas, and more ambitious in working towards my goals. There is no one, clear way to grow a successful company or become a successful professional, but the I-Corps program has proven to me that grit and perseverance go a long way in achieving your goals.
About Madison Frye:
Madison received her undergraduate degree in Genetics from North Carolina State University. She is currently enrolled at NC State in the Master of Microbial Biotechnology program, where she will graduate in 2021. This program combines both MBA-level business classes with high-level science courses. Through this program she has gained experience as a graduate student consultant working on projects with various biotechnology companies in the RTP area.
In the last few months, Madison has done customer discovery for Innatrix, and helped the Innatrix team to develop its commercialization plan. She will continue helping and supporting Innatrix’s business development endeavors.