While the financial costs of mastitis are clear, the diagnostic options for this dairy cow infection are muddled. Laboratory tests take days to return to farmers any useful information, time that eats into a dairy farm’s milk production.
Magnomics aims to improve mastitis detection with a diagnostic device designed for farm use. The Cantanhede, Portugal-based startup says its “lab-on-a-chip” technology can offer faster, more accurate results via its small, handheld device. The Magnomics technology could help farmers make smarter use of antibiotics—particularly important as the industry fights growing antibiotic resistance. For developing a new diagnostic for farm animals and taking on an infection that costs the global dairy industry billions of dollars each year, Magnomics was named the winner of the Ag Biotech Entrepreneurial Showcase, an annual event held by the North Carolina Biotechnology Center. Magnomics beat out 11 other companies from around the country who presented at the event last week.
The financial costs of mastitis in the U.S., estimated by the National Mastitis Council at up to $2 billion a year, have prompted agtech companies large and small to pursue ways to address the problem. Elanco, the animal health division of Eli Lilly (NYSE: [[ticker:LLY]), received FDA approval in March for a new biological drug that works by spurring the cow’s immune system to fight off the infection before it starts. If a mastitis detection technology making North Carolina headlines sounds familiar, that could be because Durham, NC-based Advanced Animal Diagnostics (AAD) has already developed and commercialized its own test for the infection.
But João Miguel Santos Pereira, co-founder and CEO of Magnomics, says his company’s test won’t compete against AAD, adding that the two tests could actually work together. Once an AAD test detects infection, that test must still be sent to a lab for confirmation. Rather than sending those AAD samples to a lab, Pereira says they could be tested by the Magnomics device. “They tell you something is going on, we tell you what it is,” Pereira explained to me after his company was named the winner.
Joy Parr Drach, CEO of AAD, confirmed to me Pereira’s assessment of the two technologies. She acknowledged that the two companies have been talking, adding that for farmers, there are economic reasons for having access to both tests. Magnomics plans to offer its tests on disposable cartridges that cost $4 each. But even at that price, testing an entire herd would be cost prohibitive. AAD’s less expensive test provides a more affordable option for farmers to test a wider sample. The Magnomics diagnostic would come into play only when the farmer needs to know the specific nature of infection on specific cows, she says.
It will be awhile before the AAD and Magnomics technologies can work together. Magnomics is currently developing a prototype, and that device still needs to clear regulatory barriers. But Pereira projects the diagnostic will reach the market in 2019. Magnomics, which was founded in 2013 and has raised $1.8 million to date from investors, is now pursuing $6 million in funding, he says. Magnomics’ prize for winning the entrepreneurial showcase is $10,000.
The runner-up was Durham-based Precision BioSciences, a company that has developed a gene-editing technology called Arcus, which it says offers a more precise yet flexible way to edit genes compared with other gene-editing technologies. In agriculture, Precision Bio has used its technology to develop products for partners DuPont Pioneer, Agrivida, Syngenta, and Bayer CropScience.
As the runner-up in the showcase, Precision Bio won $2,500—small change compared to the company’s recent deals. A year ago, Precision Bio raised $26 million in a Series A round of funding, which the company applied toward work in human health. In February, the company landed a partnership with Baxalta (NYSE: BXLT) that paid the North Carolina biotech company $105 million up front, with milestones that reach up to $1.6 billion if the two companies can successfully develop new cancer immunotherapies.
John Salmeron, Precision Bio’s director of plant sciences, says the company’s agricultural research has produced three internal product programs. The company plans to use its new capital to expand this portfolio. Salmeron says Precision Bio is also looking for new partners interested in working with the company’s gene-editing technology.
Here’s a look at the 10 other startups that presented their technologies at the event:
—3Bar Biologics. The spinout from Ohio State University has discovered natural, beneficial microbes that it says help plants grow healthier and produce higher yields. The Columbus, OH-based startup has also developed a patent-pending delivery system for these microbes. Soy and corn are 3Bar’s first targets because those are the crops that Ohio State had researched, explains CEO Bruce Caldwell. The company would need to conduct additional research to expand to other crops.
—Agile Sciences. Based on research from North Carolina State University, the Raleigh, NC, startup has developed an antibacterial compound derived from the bacteria-fighting secretions of marine sponges. Daina Zeng, Agile’s microbiology group leader says this compound could fight bacterial diseases, such as citrus canker and geranium blight, which cost farmers billions of dollars each year. Agile’s tests found that this compound, called Agilyte, was not toxic to plants and could be used in combination with existing crop treatments. Agile has raised $14 million in funding to date. Agilyte still needs to complete U.S. Environmental Protection Agency registration before going to market, a process that could take several years.
—Apse. John Killmer, CEO of St. Louis-based Apse, says his company offers a “non-GMO way to do GMO things.” The company’s technology bio-engineers plants without genetically modifying the organism, a feat accomplished through RNA interference, a natural process in which RNA inhibits gene expression. Killmer says this approach targets a single gene, resulting in specific effects. For example, the technology could target only crop pests, leaving benign insects unaffected. But RNA is expensive. Apse aims to overcome that hurdle with a technology that can manufacture large volumes of RNA at low cost.
—Aptimmune Biologics. Champaign, IL-based Aptimmune is developing mucosal vaccines, which the company says will offer better delivery and a better immune response. The company’s first vaccine targets are porcine reproductive and respiratory syndrome virus (PRRSV) and influenza, two infections that the company says costs the U.S. swine industry more than $1.4 billion annually. The company is currently pursuing a $6 million Series B round.
—Benanova. Raleigh-based Benanova, a spinout from NC State, has developed a nanoparticle technology that it says can reduce the amount of chemicals required for crops. Compared to conventional spraying, CEO Hinton Armstrong says that products sprayed with Benanova’s technology deposit better and spread better on plants. The technology could cut down on “vapor drift,” the vaporization of a spray, such as herbicide, which then wafts away and requires farmers to use more of the chemical. That vapor is wasted product that drifts to fields not targeted by the chemicals, posing risks to plants and wildlife. Benanova is seeking seed funding and a partner for agrochemical studies.
—Cocoon Biotech. The Boston company has developed a way to use silk protein for drug delivery. Silk is biodegradable and offers the potential for long-term dosing because the protein can release its drug payload over an extended period of time, CEO and founder Ailis Tweed-Kent says. The Tufts University spinout is eyeing veterinary applications; delivering arthritis drugs to the achy joints of horses is its first target. But Tweed-Kent says that the company’s technology platform could eventually expand to drugs addressing other conditions. Cocoon expects to file an investigational new animal drug application next year.
—EpiBiome. The South San Francisco-based startup’s technology identifies problem bacteria and develops bacteriophages—viruses that infect bacteria without harming mammalian cells—that can target the pathogen. EpiBiome’s first target is mastitis in dairy cows. Lucia Mokres, EpiBiome’s chief medical officer, says that the technology has the potential for reducing antibiotics use in cows. EpiBiome has tested its technology in mice and expects to start cow testing in the coming months.
—Genoverde Biosciences. The Amherst, MA-based startup says it has developed a way to genetically modify plants to increase yield. Genoverde, which co-founder and CEO Michael Harrington says translates as “green gene,” is eyeing the forest products industry as its first target. Harrington says Genoverde’s technology can engineer trees to produce up to 20 percent more wood density, which means it produces more wood and captures more carbon dioxide. The patent-pending technology was originally developed at the University of Massachusetts Amherst.
—Mazen Animal Health. Farm animals are vaccinated the same way as people—a hypodermic needle. Mazen says it has developed a way to produce vaccines that can be added to animal feed. CEO Jenny Filbey says that Mazen’s technology will eliminate problems with injectable vaccines, such as the need to keep them cold, the stress on the animals, and the occasional needle breaking off at the injection site. Filbey says Mazen’s oral vaccine will enable farmers to vaccinate more animals at a lower cost than injectable vaccines. Mazen’s first target is swine, and the company is raising a $5 million Series A round to bring its technology into animal testing.
—Mimetics. The Durham-based company’s computational biology technology from Duke University analyzes the biological processes of organisms and finds ways to interrupt them. Though the Mimetics technology has discovered a novel antifungal compounds with applications in agriculture, CEO David Reed says the scope of the company’s technology includes applications in human health, pharmaceuticals, and the food and beverage industries.
Photo courtesy of Flickr user U.S. Department of Agriculture under a Creative Commons license.