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UNM agritech kills pests, protects environment

eco-pesticidesALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — University of New Mexico technology to improve the ability of natural organisms to kill agricultural pests is a few steps closer to market thanks to a new investment led by the New Mexico Angels.

The group, which pools funds from high-wealth individuals, officially has launched EcoPesticides International Inc. to commercialize UNM’s technology. It just closed on the first $150,000 of a $400,000 round on investment for the startup, and it brought in two serial entrepreneurs to run the company, said Angels President John Chavez.

“We’re working to fill out the full investment round, but we’ve already closed on the first tranche of capital,” he said. “We’re now scouting locations in Las Cruces, Albuquerque and Santa Fe to set up a laboratory.”

The technology provides a method to encapsulate fungus, bacteria and other natural organisms that kill agricultural pests.

Their effectiveness against pests like locusts is limited because they rapidly degrade under heat and ultraviolet light. Encapsulating them in UV-resistant gels allows them to last longer, be more effective and potentially provide an environmentally friendly alternative to chemical pesticides.

The Angels, who took an option to license the technology in December 2012, have been working with the inventors since then to further develop the technology, test its market potential and build a business structure and marketing plans before formally launching EcoPesticides.

The inventors already have received $1 million in development grants since 2011 from the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation for ongoing lab and field testing in Tunisia, Africa, against desert locusts.

Sandia National Laboratories will provide technical assistance to determine if there are any residual environmental impacts from the encapsulated organisms, Chavez said. And the company is negotiating an agreement with the USDA to test UNM’s technology on grasshoppers and Mormon crickets.

EcoPesticides CEO Les Stewart said, “We see a lot of market opportunity … because of widespread concern about being able to grow food without destroying the environment.”