AgroSpheres will head to Amsterdam to compete

U.Va. founded food sustainability startup grows, participates globally

hsagrospherescourtesyjosephfrank

AgroSpheres will present their pesticide-removing technology at Thought for Food Global Summit in Amsterdam later this month.

Courtesy Joseph Frank

The team behind AgroSpheres, a startup that produces engineered bio-particles for agricultural use, will attend the Thought for Food Global Summit — hosted by Thought for Food, an organization that provides resources for agriculture startups — in Amsterdam on May 26 to compete in a 12-week boot camp.

Ameer Shakeel, a current fourth-year Engineering student, and Payam Pourtaheri, then-Engineering student, founded AgroSpheres in 2015, and have since expanded their research and development team to include fourth-year Engineering students Joey Frank and Sepehr Zomorodi and College alumnus Zach Davis.

AgroSpheres produces a bioparticle that degrades pesticides and other harmful chemicals into their natural, nontoxic byproducts in order to make farming and crop consumption safer. The particles are suspended in a medium so farmers can easily use them as a spray.

“We designed it to be implemented in farmers’ workflow, you just add [the particles] to water,” Pourtaheri said.

No products currently exist to remove pesticides, Davis said.

Pesticides come in different classes — including insecticides, herbicides and fungicides — each with a commonly used chemical. AgroSpheres aims to tackle the variety of pesticides by building “custom” particles that suit unique industry needs by tailoring a spray to each chemical class, Pourtaheri said.

“Pesticides are soluble in water, that’s why they linger,” Pourtaheri said. “[Pesticides] last seven days on crops, and the half life becomes 21 weeks in water, so that’s when it really lingers.”

While pesticides are all biodegradable, farmers currently must wait an EPA-designated number of days after applying pesticides before the crops can be harvested and sold commercially.

“Farmers have to wait that window of time to finish up before they harvest their crops,” Frank said. “[AgroSpheres] gives farmers more flexibility.”

Pourtaheri and Shakeel attended the Hello Tomorrow Challenge in Paris — a global deep-tech entrepreneurial competition — and were selected as one of 10 notable agriculture startups by Thought for Food.

“The mission of Thought for Food is to identify and empower and accelerate young entrepreneurs around the world that are helping to feed nine billion people by the year 2050,” said Jared Yarnall-Schane, program director of Thought for Food.

Thought for Food enrolled AgroSpheres in a pre-accelerator program that taught the team the basics of business entrepreneurship and connected them to relevant mentors in order to form industry connections.

“AgroSpheres and nine other teams have all been completing a 12-week boot camp … That culminates in Amsterdam,” Yarnall-Schane said. “All the teams get flown out and participate in a week-long pitch training and get to go out and enjoy the city.”

At the end of the week, AgroSpheres will present their pitch to a panel of judges, with the possibility of winning $26,000 in funding.

“For AgroSpheres specifically, I’m excited to see how their industry connections continue to grow,” Yarnall-Schane said. “I enjoyed working with them and pushing them to look at the bigger picture technologies.”

AgroSpheres started in the Innovation Lab at the University, winning the annual University-sponsored Entrepreneurship Cup in both 2015 and 2016. Now, AgroSpheres has plans to obtain its own lab space.

“We found potentially some space … To have our own lab and turn this from a student project to a real biotech company,” Pourtaheri said. “Since it’s a biotech company, revenue is not in the near future. We have the tenacity to continue and raise money for the next two or three years.”

The Thought for Food Global Summit in Amsterdam is a step forwards in that direction. Previous participants include AgroSmart, a Brazilian startup that provides sensors to predict irrigation needs and raised a million dollars in investment funding after completing Thought for Food’s program.

“Our goal is agricultural solutions, starting with pesticides,” Pourtaheri said. “There are various other aspects that need optimization and we hope to be the company that leads that.”

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