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Marijn Dekkers and Jacqueline Heard Reflect on the Future of Ag

December 14, 2021
Enko CEO Jacqueline Heard and Board Member Marijn Dekkers share decades of experience in agriculture and a passion for innovation that drives the industry forward. Marijn–who served as CEO of Bayer from 2010-2016–is the founder and chairman of Novalis LifeSciences, an investment and advisory firm for the life science industry. 
 
These seasoned ag experts recently sat down to share their visions for the future of agriculture and Enko’s role in it, the value of drawing on technology from other industries, and what’s needed to spur more innovation in crop protection. What follows is an edited version of their conversation.
 
Marijn, can you start by explaining how you were introduced to Enko and what compelled you to invest in the company?
 
Marijn Dekkers (MD): I first heard of Enko when my good friend Adrian Percy, the former crop protection R&D lead at Bayer, called me and said he’d found a company that was putting a new level of sophistication on small molecule discovery for agriculture. I have a strong interest in agriculture stemming from my time as CEO of Bayer. Since then, I started an advisory firm for the life sciences industry with ag investments as one focus area. 
 
I was immediately intrigued by Enko because it had a different approach to crop protection development than the major ag companies, which I felt were not always using novel approaches. These big companies have been successful, and sometimes the tendency is to keep following the same playbook. Smaller companies have new ideas and can push the big players to innovate. I see Enko as one that can do that.
 
Jacqueline Heard (JH): I remember our first conversation well – I said, “Wow, I need to have Marijn on my board!” You’re trained as a chemical engineer, so you really get it. I knew you could be an incredible mentor. 
 
What are your visions for the future of ag? How will Enko contribute to that transformation?
 
MD: When I was in school, there were only three billion people in the world. Now, there are more than seven billion. Somehow, we have to feed them all–and doing that requires crop protection. 
 
We’ve found effective ways to protect crops with chemistry. Some of these chemicals work really well but have unintended consequences–because we moved so fast to create technologies that can help feed so many new people. We’re still using herbicides that were invented 35 years ago, and it’s time to go back and reassess the decisions we made when we were in a rush. With more time and technology, we need to redesign our approach and make crop protection safer, more responsible and more sustainable. That’s what Enko is doing.
 
JH: I absolutely agree that the future of agriculture is producing more food more sustainably. Technology has always helped address critical issues that emerge as populations grow–and I believe it can do so again.
 
Enko’s role is to create building blocks of innovation that will help farmers manage climate change and support growing populations. Our innovation can be combined with others–like see and spray technology–so that growers can apply effective and safe chemistry more precisely. It’s encouraging to think that we can produce better molecules that farmers can use less of. When that chemistry comes together with other technologies, it’s even more effective.
 
What other proven technologies can the ag industry integrate and build upon, similar to what Enko is doing with its agriculture-specific DNA-encoded library screening toolkit?
 
MD: I understand the value of combining better chemistry with digital innovations or genetic modification, but it’s crucial to focus on developing a better product in terms of performance, safety and side effects. Additional components might make it even more effective, but better chemistry must come first. 
 
JH: I’m a technology geek, so I do like the idea of converging technologies like better chemistry with precision application or see and spray. But I agree that solutions first need to be cost-effective and simple to be valuable to growers. We’re working on chemistry that can reduce environmental load by 98% compared to leading products on the market, controls a broad spectrum of weeds and can replace older products like Glyphosate. That would be a significant improvement from where things are today.
 
What’s needed to push innovation in crop protection forward?
 
MD: Governments around the world need to do a much better job promoting alternatives to the outdated crop protection that’s still in use. When the hole in the ozone layer was a huge problem, the government stepped in and said we needed to phase out chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) and find alternatives. Only then did companies start working seriously on those alternatives. Now, CFCs are completely gone. 
 
Where is the equivalent in agriculture? There are a few chemicals that really need to be phased out, and we also need to promote alternatives and monitor their progress. That is not happening enough, if at all. When it does, capital comes into the industry and alternatives boom as a new solution. 
 
Can you both talk about the value of applying technologies and learnings from other industries, and how that informs what Enko is doing?
 
MD: During my time at Bayer, I saw the value of scientists looking into each other’s libraries and finding things that were relevant to their work. For example, scientists focused on crop protection saw potential application to their work in a class of compounds being screened for human health. At Enko, it’s exciting to see the next step of that evolution – a growing promise for agriculture of what’s been successful in pharmaceuticals.
 
JH: The inspiration for Enko was going outside the agriculture domain to find technology that could have disruptive potential. We’ve drawn from proven technologies in pharmaceuticals – target-based R&D has moved healthcare forward rapidly by creating innovations that treat diseases effectively but are much better for the human body as a whole. 
 
This is why we call Enko a crop health company. We want to apply this same target-based approach and consider not just the crop, but more systematically what happens around it and how to contribute to the health of the ecosystem. That means intentionally discovering and designing safer chemistry that growers don’t need to use as much of. I’m optimistic about the future of agriculture, and I believe that safe, novel, effective chemistry is an essential component.