15 Minutes With… Jacqueline Heard, CEO of Enko Chem
By Michelle Pelletier Marshall, Global AgInvesting Media (September 8, 2020)
By all counts, Jacqueline Heard has the capabilities, experience, and knowledge to drive substantial change and innovation in the ag sector. Heard, who is CEO of Enko Chem and a venture partner at Anterra Capital, has put her PhD in biology from Boston College and MBA from MIT Sloan, as well as her degree in biochemistry from the University of Vermont and a stint at Harvard Medical School, to good use in agriculture, focusing on identifying and commercializing new technology, both in startups and leading global companies like Monsanto.
Heard’s roles have seen her being an entrepreneur at startups like CiBO Technologies and Mendel Biotechnology – a leader of global R&D and investments at companies like Flagship and Two Blades Foundation – and creator of new companies, like Nimbus Ceres Discovery, which seeks to develop novel fungicide and RNA formulations. She also was instrumental in establishing the corporate venture arm of Monsanto Growth Ventures, and sits on several boards.
At Enko, a Massachusetts-based company that develops novel, next-generation crop protection solutions, Heard leads the charge to reinvigorate traditional ag chemistry to help move the needle on crop protection to secure the global food supply chain. The company’s latest Series B funding round of $45 million, which was led by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation this June, lifted total funding to-date to $66 million. The funding will be used to rejuvenate development pipelines for new agriculture chemicals with a focus on delivering safer, lower use rate products that provide good returns for farmers.
GAI News (WIA's sister publication) spoke with Heard to learn more.
1). You have said that Enko is different from big companies in establishing its pest control products… how so?
The key difference is our hyper-efficient and targeted technological approach. DNA-encoded libraries represent a disruptive technology in drug discovery, providing significantly greater chemical library diversity (billions not millions), speed of screening (days not months), and depth of screening (billions not hundreds of thousands tested). The scale and speed at which Enko can create new and novel starting points for safe, differentiated ag-ready products is orders of magnitude ahead of where the industry is today. We see the value of Enko very quickly moving from target-based discovery to the products we identify and the manner in which we develop them.
The industry problems of the past define how we move forward with safe and trusted products for the future that catalyze new value beyond the 1:1 product replacement. We need to move beyond the “spray and pray” approach of the past to meet the safety and sustainability needs of today’s farmers, consumers, and regulators by building in safety measures at the very start of the development cycle to stay ahead of future needs. Enko aims to lead the charge in making safer, lower use rate products that provide good returns for farmers the industry standard. Applying machine learning and artificial intelligence models to our extensive data sets, our predictive analytics tools decrease design cycles and increase our success rate in finding safe, novel, effective small molecule compounds. Our products will promote the economic and performance lift for other technologies that are essential for sustainable and regenerative agricultural practices.
2). Your career has taken you from biology to startups to agtech to big agchem. What has been the driving force that brings focus to your mission in agriculture?
A scientist at heart, I have a passion for innovation and solving critical challenges with proven technologies. The driving force behind my career in agriculture has been the enormous need for technology that can improve the resilience and sustainability of food production.
In the current groundswell toward safe, sustainable agriculture, developing new tools for productivity is just the start. Access is absolutely critical. Partnering, as Enko is with the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, to ensure those new tools can be deployed in the parts of the world that need it most, has been another core part of what I see as my mission.
3). With total funding for Enko now at $66 million, what does the future hold?
Enko started with an extremely capital-efficient, mostly virtual model. As we’ve built out our pipeline, we have focused on learning how to best balance outsourcing with internal capability development. With the additional funding and support from such a strong mix of industry leaders, we are further internalizing core areas of differentiation such as product and target biology, data science, and machine learning. Capital efficiency is still key to our strategy, but we can now afford to significantly expand our internal innovation areas and speed the maturation of our unique product development process.
With a focus on crop protection innovation, Enko strives to make an impact on sustainable agriculture with what it produces, either alone or in partnership with the supply chain, while creating enormous value for our shareholders. Our technology platform has been substantially de-risked. We’ll continue to make new discoveries and move our advanced leads toward commercialization so we can provide safe solutions that sustainably improve agricultural yield.
4). You have a seat at the table at Anterra Capital as well. How does this role shape your efforts at Enko, and support your actions in ag investing?
As you know, I incubated the company within Anterra and now I spend 100 percent of my time and efforts building Enko. The Anterra Capital team is amazing, some of the best and brightest in agtech venture capital. I hope to always be viewed as a part of that team and helpful where I can be as a venture partner.
Being an investor for so many years before running my own company has shaped my leadership approach and helped me better navigate the venture capital world. Before joining Anterra, my experience leading R&D teams and then establishing the corporate venture arm for Monsanto was invaluable to my understanding of the supply chain, producer and consumer needs and how to run an industry-leading pipeline. My time as an ag investor taught me more about what investors like myself are looking for, which helped me learn how to thoughtfully design, prove, and then scale a company. To successfully lead and grow a company takes much more than just an innovative idea. For me, it all starts with the technology – the science at the core of the company. However, the balancing act of running a startup, especially in the ag industry, is not for the faint of heart.
Entrepreneurs in every industry chart a path into an uncertain future and into a market that is a moving target – that’s both the opportunity and the challenge. Most investors will tell you that to stay relevant and have an impact, you need to be agile and focused at the same time. However, being an entrepreneur in the ag world means also taking on the mission to develop safe solutions that solve longstanding challenges for the industry that literally feeds the world – adding infinite layers of complexity and pressure. Call me crazy, but I think it’s the absolute best job in the world!
ABOUT JACQUELINE HEARD
Jacqueline Heard is founder and CEO of Enko and a venture partner at Anterra Capital. She has a PhD in biology from Boston College and an MBA from MIT Sloan. Her career in agriculture has centered around the support of innovation in the sector by identifying and commercializing new technology, both as an entrepreneur at start-ups like CiBO Technologies and Mendel Biotechnology, and as a leader of global R&D and investments at Monsanto, Flagship and Two Blades Foundation. She was instrumental in starting Monsanto Growth Ventures, setting up the corporate venture arm of a world leading agritech firm. Heard has served as an active board member for her portfolio companies, and forged new open innovation structures for the industry by creating new companies like Nimbus Ceres Discovery and Preceres to develop novel Fungicide and RNA formulation assets using capital efficient, semivirtual models.
~ Michelle Pelletier Marshall is managing editor for HighQuest Group's Global AgInvesting's GAI Gazette magazine and its WIA Today blog, as well as a contributor to GAI News and the Oilseed & Grain News. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.