What You Need to Know About Boragen
Boragen is located in Research Triangle Park in Durham, N.C., and focuses on boron-based development of anti-bacterials and anti-fungicides for the agricultural industry.
Tony Liu, chief scientific officer, told BioSpace about the company’s start.
“I had a chance to collaborate with Anacor Pharmaceuticals which looks at boron chemicals for human health, on a couple of projects,” Liu says. “We started thinking, ‘Wait a second, this boron chemistry has so much versatility and has so much interesting and novel biological activity outside of human health, maybe we could make a bigger impact on agricultural needs, such as crop protection and animal health.’ So Boragen was formed to really take boron chemistry and look for novel chemistry for agriculture use only.”
John Dombrosky, the company’s chief executive officer, predicts that in the next seven years, agriculture will change more than in the last 70. “We’re facing 10 billion people on the planet by 2050, and agriculture is the number one user of water, land and deforestation. There’s a lot of ecological connectivities going on in agriculture, and that’s what a lot of younger people care about, doing good, and it hasn’t really happened before because there really hasn’t been a lot of biotech entrepreneurship in agriculture,” Dombrosky says.
Noting that without modern industry, 70 percent of modern crops would die, Dombrosky points out. That more than ever, the agriculture industry—and the world—needs technology in this area. “The fungicide market is where we’re initially focusing for our lead molecule and second and third-generation novel mode-of-action chemistry. A lot of resistance has formed and the big unmet need in big-grow-agriculture, like corn and wheat, and down into fruit trees, are resistance forms. Fungi have adapted to these fungicides, so having a novel mode-of-action fungicide is our first critical lead compound,” Dombrosky says.
John Dombrosky – chief executive officer. Dombrosky is also the chief executive officer of the AgTech Accelerator. Prior to that, he had a variety of executive management roles at Syngenta. Before that, he was involved in corporate development at Thomson Reuters.
Stephen Benkovic – co-founder. Benkovic is the Evan Pugh University Professor and Eberly Chair in Chemistry at Penn State University.
Gerald Fink – co-founder. Fink is the Margaret and Herman Sokol Professor of Biology at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
Paul Schimmel – co-founder. Schimmel is with The Scripps Research Institute, a professor in the Department of Cell and Molecular Biology and a MacArthur Professor Emeritus with Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
Lucy Shapiro – co-founder. Shapiro is the Virginia and DK Ludwig Professor in Developmental Biology at Stanford University.
In 2016, Boragen raised a $10 million Series A from AgTech Accelerator, a startup program launched in 2016 to help start agtech-based startups. Liu says, “Our team has about 12 scientists and we work closely with AgTech Accelerator. They provide management, business development, IP strategy, and allows Boragen to concentrate on developing really cool chemistry.”
AgTech pitched in $3 million and other AgTech Accelerator investors raised the remaining $7 million. Those investors include Alexandria Venture Investments, ARCH Venture Partners, Bayer, Elanco Animal Health Flagship Pioneering, Hatteras Venture Partners, Mountain Group Capital, Pappas Capital, and Syngenta Ventures.
Agriculture has a different, but similar process towards regulation and commercialization as human biopharma does. Dombrosky says, “Working with the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), you start in the lab, go to the greenhouse, then go the field, actually working outside. Mother Nature has her own ideas of how things work. So we’re going into the greenhouse then into the field work with our lead compound.”
The company also is building a strong library, not just in fungicides, but also in insecticides and antimicrobials. “As we build up this library,” Dombrosky says, “we actually know we’ll find new medicines and possibly new ways to partner key aspects of our library to human medicine companies, even though we’re not a human medicine company.”
Liu adds, “There hasn’t been a lot of innovation in the chemistry in agriculture. There’s a lack of entrepreneurship in this area. Our key main focus is fungicide, but there are multiple different fungal problems, including specialty problems like bananas and Panama disease [Fusarium Wilt]. We know that the boron chemistry is most useful for the biological target, so we think we have a great approach in that area.”
They also have another project focused on animal parasitics.
One would guess Monsanto is a competitor, but Dombrosky points out that the bulk of Monsanto’s biotech industry is human biotech. But one of the company’s investors is Bayer. Dombrosky says, “We view them as partners rather than competitors because there’s not much technical development in the early stages, building up lead chemistry. What we’re doing is focusing on chemistry. I would put our 12-member scientific team against anyone in the world in terms of the depth of knowledge in boron chemistry and developing new library scaffolds. We imagine ourselves to be a long-term asset for the agriculture industry, to be partners to develop new chemistries that will fit into their portfolios. We feel good about the space we’ve carved out with our development engine.”
Dollars and Deals
It’s too early at this stage for them to discuss any pending deals, but the company expects more data in mid-2018, and will likely be looking to partner with a big company to be a business development partner.
What to Look For
Dombrosky says, “We think that as the industry continues to look for more external development, we are really well positioned to become an imaginative innovation engine for novel chemistry for all agriculture, including animal health and plant health. In the next five years, we hope to have established fantastic leads and engaged partners with a full regulatory dossier through the EPA and a robust pipeline of 2000-plus scaffolds with which to work. Our vision is to stand it up and develop it as an ongoing concern. We believe Boragen can be really unique with long-term value for the ag industry.”