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How a Bill Gates-backed startup plans to save farming with A.I.

June 26, 2020, 1:49 PM UTC

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When you read about A.I. in this newsletter, you usually don’t bat an eye. A.I. is “artificial intelligence,” that decades-old discipline in the field of computer science that’s (finally) showing some real promise lately.

But there’s another A.I. out there, one that’s been in development for centuries, or even millennia. It’s the shorthand for the “active ingredient” in agricultural herbicides, fungicides, and insecticides.

Which, of course, begs the question: Can improving A.I. help improve A.I.? Or is that A.I. improving A.I.? You know what I mean.

That is, the global agriculture industry has been relying on a lot of the same active ingredients to fight pests and diseases for many decades now. And, just like with human diseases getting more resistant to antibiotics, the crop-destroying villains are getting more immune and harder to kill. Throw in the growing (and hungry) global population and the complications of climate change, and you’ve got a world-class challenge, one that’s caught the attention of Bill and Melinda Gates lately.

That’s where Jacqueline Heard comes in. I’m not sure how many people have a PhD in biology plus an MBA from M.I.T. plus a post-doc fellowship at Harvard Medical School studying agricultural genetics, but that’s a lot of years of school. After putting her talents to work as a scientist for Monsanto for almost a dozen years, Heard has a new role. Today’s the day her three-year-old startup, Enko Chem, emerges from stealth mode to announce what it’s all about. And what it’s about is A.I. and A.I.

Enko and her team are trying to use some of the most cutting-edge machine learning techniques to sort through millions, or even billions, of chemical compounds to find promising candidates for new active ingredients. If that sounds familiar, it’s because that is the model that the pharmaceutical industry has been pursuing to find new drugs for humans more quickly and at much lower cost.

What worked for pharma should work for agriculture, too, the CEO says. “Pharma has de-risked this technology,” Heard explained to me over the phone this week. “You see it in evidence of licenses, with large pharma companies bringing the technology in house. It’s been a very exciting development in drug discovery.”

Enko’s caught the attention of the Gates’ foundation and other major venture capitalists. On Friday, the startup announced its series B funding of $45 million, led by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation alongside Anterra Capital, the Rabo Food & Agri Innovation Fund, Finistere Ventures, Novalis LifeSciences, Germin8 Ventures, and TO Ventures Food.

In its first three years, Enko proved that the model should work and struck partnerships to fill in some gaps, like licensing a massive database of compounds to feed its algorithms. Still, actual products remain five or six years away, Heard estimates. “There are a ton of things that can go wrong between now and the launch of a product but if things keep continuing on this path, I’m hoping it’s a nine-year process,” she says.

We’ll check back in 2026. Have a great weekend.

Aaron Pressman

@ampressman

aaron.pressman@fortune.com

NEWSWORTHY

If at first you don't succeed. After years of trial and effort, Microsoft is throwing in the towel on another of former CEO Steve Ballmer's mistaken strategies. The software giant said Friday it will permanently close all of its physical retail locations and take a charge of $450 million against its next quarterly earnings. The stores have been closed since March due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Store employees will be redeployed to sales, training, and support efforts.

Jibe and tack. Telecom giant Verizon has long been at the head of the line complaining to regulators about the misdeeds of Internet giants like Google and Facebook. On Thursday, the company found a new way to land a blow, saying it would join the growing advertising boycott of Facebook over the social network's failure to curb the spread of racist and other hateful posts. As we mentioned yesterday, the boycott already includes REI, Patagonia, and Unilever's Ben & Jerry’s.

Year of the Perdue Wonderchicken. I don't know how far we are from the future that David Foster Wallace imagined in his classic novel Infinite Jest when even the name of the year has been sold for sponsorship ("Year of the Depend Adult Undergarment"), but it feels like we're getting pretty close. Amazon on Thursday announced it had bought sponsorship rights to the venue where Seattle's women's basketball and new hockey team play and will rename the building the Climate Pledge Arena in honor of the company's recent...climate pledge.

Hands on the wheel. In more substantial Amazon news, the e-commerce giant is buying autonomous vehicle startup Zoox, run by former Intel exec Aicha Evans, for $1.2 billion. Amazon could use Zoox tech in its warehouses and home delivery network in addition to following the six-year-old startup's plans to take on Waymo in the automated taxi business. Meanwhile, Waymo signed up Volvo as its fourth major automaker to partner on using its technology.

Am I covered for that? Insurance tech startup Lemonade is getting close to going public. The company, which uses A.I. to help sell its coverage, said Thursday it plans to sell shares at $23 to $26. At that range, according to Business Insider, Lemonade would be valued around $1.3 billion, less than the $2 billion valuation reached in prior private funding rounds. Maybe that's because Lemonade lost $109 million last year on revenue of $64 million.

FOOD FOR THOUGHT

The pandemic and resulting economic chaos has dramatically accelerated some trends that were already altering markets, albeit more slowly. Accenture CEO Julie Sweet, in an essay for Fortune, has five recommendations for companies trying to cope with the quickened pace of change around digital transformations. Here are a few:

Build your digital “A-Team.” All companies must now be as good as digital natives to deliver the first-class experiences customers and employees have come to expect. But creating your digital foundation quickly cannot be done alone, and it requires new kinds of relationships with digital, technology, and cloud companies. Recruit the handful who can help you build and become part of your digital core, who are invested in your success and who will give your business the attention and resources it demands.

Be a learner. Organizations must think beyond traditional ways of doing business to solve complex problems. Learn from your customers, your employees, and the leaders in your own and other industries. In response to COVID-19, first responders in health and public sector organizations quickly adapted successful interactive virtual agent models from telecommunications and financial services organizations with great success.

FOR YOUR WEEKEND READING PLEASURE

A few long reads I came across this week:

My dad launched the quest to find alien intelligence. It changed astronomy. (National Geographic)

Sixty years ago, on a chilly West Virginia morning, Frank Drake began to scan the stars for signals from faraway civilizations.

How K-pop fans are weaponizing the internet for Black Lives Matter (Vox)

And four other ways people are using social media to support nationwide protests.

Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Most Revolutionary Role Yet (WSJ Magazine)

As Disney+ prepares to stream the highly anticipated film version of ‘Hamilton’ on July 3, the Broadway sensation feels as apt as ever: “It all hits in different ways, based on where America is,” Miranda says.

Boss of the Beach (New York Magazine)

For 40 years, the city’s lifeguard corps has been mired in controversy, and for 40 years it’s been run by one man: Peter Stein.

IN CASE YOU MISSED IT

2 reasons China may be ramping up its digital currency project By Veta Chan

New bill would bar federal agencies from using facial-recognition technology By Jonathan Vanian

Can’t wait for iOS 14? Download the ‘beta’ version for early access By Robert Hackett

Facebook tackles a persistent problem: users sharing old news By Danielle Abril

How a ‘creator economy’ could help writers and artists triumph over Facebook and Google By Samir Patil

Wirecard shows auditing is broken. Here’s why—and how to fix it By Jeremy Kahn

Small-business owners shouldn’t stop innovating during the pandemic By Lucinda Shen

(Some of these stories require a subscription to access. Thank you for supporting our journalism.)

BEFORE YOU GO

You've heard about the murder hornets, right? Well, technically, that's just their nickname. More formally, the Asian giant hornet, or Vespa mandarinia, has been spotted in the northwest part of the U.S. killing honeybee colonies and doling out insanely painful (and even life-threatening) stings to humans.

How did the 2-inch long flying beasts get here? Probably as stowaways aboard a cargo ship from Asia, theorizes Canadian beekeeper Moufida Holubeshen, who is tracing the onslaught. “All it needs is a tiny little space, essentially the size of its body,” Holubeshen tells The Guardian.

Tiny, indeed. I'm going to spend the weekend not thinking about how long it may take Vespa mandarinia to hitchhike to the East Coast.