Agtech startup Innatrix lands $225k NSF grant to develop crop protection platform

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RESEARCH TRIANGLE PARK — Research Triangle Park agtech startup Innatrix has been awarded a $224,594 National Science Foundation Small Business Innovation Research grant.

The award supports the company’s research and development work on creating “high-affinity protein ligands” to battle crop yield losses from pathogens and pests.

The Innatrix platform is complicated, but compelling. As a result, it’s probably useful to consider the basics of proteins and ligands:

Proteins are large molecules made from amino acids that determine the structure, function, and regulation of cells, tissues, and organs. They act on things. For example, they can provide transport and create biological reactions. Sometimes they work together to make things in living cells.

Ligands are any molecules, including drugs, chemicals or proteins, that transmit signals between or within cells.

Innatrix is developing protein ligands that exert their effects by binding to cellular proteins known as receptors. Receptors cause cells to grow, move, release other molecules, or sometimes to not grow or die. After binding to a ligand, the receptor can send additional signals to other parts of the cell, or if desired, the receptor can be “blocked” from sending an undesirable signal to a cell.

If a protein and a ligand are a good “fit,” with matching nooks and crannies that allow them to bind together tightly, they’re considered “high-affinity” protein ligands.

Innatrix is developing a novel platform it calls “continuous laboratory evolution technology.” The platform enables Innatrix researchers to rapidly produce high-affinity, high-specificity protein ligands to target proteins of interest, for agricultural and, potentially, even for pharmaceutical applications.


The company was founded in 2012 by CEO Marshall Edgell, Ph.D., a long-time member of the microbiology faculty at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill who is also a former member of the Board of Directors of the North Carolina Biotechnology Center.

Innatrix Research Director Jiarui Li, Ph.D., says the company’s platform may prove to be the next generation of phage display, a lab technique used for the high-throughput screening of protein interactions developed by George Smith, Ph.D., who shared the 2018 Nobel Prize in chemistry.

Building on the concept of phage display, Innatrix has designed its platform to provide much higher-throughput screening with significantly less labor, to quickly and efficiently develop products that can ward off, repel, or kill plant diseases and pests.

The company’s technology is aimed at inhibiting the functions of target proteins in pathogens and pests, staying ahead of their evolving resistance in the field by using these “sneaky” protein ligands.

“This award allows us to advance on our mission to create environmentally friendly, sustainable products, which will help farmers to overcome crop yield losses caused by pathogens and pests,” said Li after receiving word the company had been granted the SBIR award.

Andrea Belz, director of the Division of Industrial Innovation and Partnerships at NSF, said,  “NSF is proud to support the technology of the future by thinking beyond incremental developments and funding the most creative, impactful ideas across all markets and areas of science and engineering. With the support of our research funds, any deep technology startup or small business can guide basic science into meaningful solutions that address tremendous needs.”

(c) North Carolina Biotechnology Center

Original Article Source: WRAL TechWire