RTP’s TerMir Awarded Alexandria LaunchLabs’ AgTech Innovation Prize
Research Triangle Park ag tech startup TerMir is the winner of the inaugural Alexandria LaunchLabs $100,000 AgTech Innovation Prize.
Alexandria LaunchLabs, a life sciences startup accelerator with an exclusive ag tech branch in RTP, launched the competition to inspire innovators to improve human health through unique agriculture-, food- and nutrition-related solutions.
The prize brought out an old-fashioned competitive spirit among life sciences startups around the country, as a timely reminder that the COVID-19 pandemic cannot hinder innovation.
Seven finalists emerged from 70 applicants, two of which call RTP their home. In May, these seven companies pitched a five-minute virtual presentation to a panel of judges. Their specialties represented a wide range of ag tech sectors including animal health, robotics and crop protection. After a month of cautiously waiting, TerMir was awarded the prize.
With its name short for “Earth Miracle” in Latin, TerMir’s focus is finding an environmentally safe treatment for citrus greening disease, which devastates crop production worldwide. They were selected as the Innovation Prize winner because of their new approach to controlling the bacteria that cause the disease.
Citrus greening disease is presently incurable. There are remedies, such as using copper, but this can build up in soil and cause different problems. Farmers have used streptomycin and oxytetracycline, but these antibiotics cannot kill the bacteria hiding deep in the roots. They can also block nutrients from getting to the fruit and cause drug resistance in humans who eat it.
Citrus greening disease is dangerous to crop production because of how little scientists know about it. It can’t be grown in a lab and it isn’t native to the United States. The bacteria causing the disease are spread quickly by Asian citrus psyllid bugs that hide in fruit shipments from China. It causes trees to produce discolored leaves and deformed fruit, and eventually, the tree dies. Entire citrus farms are quarantined when the disease shows up – no fruit in, no fruit out. In a multi-billion-dollar industry, citrus greening disease puts a large dent in the economy.
In Florida alone, $4.6 billion and 30,000 jobs have been lost because of the fruit disease, according to a June 2019 article in Chemical & Engineering News. Major markets in Florida, California, Arizona, and Texas, and even a smaller market in North Carolina, are being impacted. Because of how slowly trees grow, it isn’t practical to chop down all the citrus trees and start over – the only foolproof solution scientists have come up with so far. There needs to be a cure for existing trees, and that’s where TerMir comes in.
TerMir has named its proprietary treatment Ichor. The company says it’s “the first fully effective solution for breaking the bacterial disease cycle.” The product is not an antibiotic, but it targets the bacteria on a molecular level.
“Have you ever used hydrogen peroxide on a cut and seen it bubble up?” asked President and CTO of TerMir, Chad Brommer Ph.D., in an interview with the North Carolina Biotechnology Center. “Ichor works the same way. It attacks from inside the cell and starts a chain reaction.”
This safe and effective antibacterial treatment has the potential to cure citrus greening. To complement Ichor, TerMir developed Harpe, a group of herbicides made from plant extracts to kill the weeds that steal a plant’s nutrients.
According to Brommer, TerMir plans to use the Alexandria LaunchLabs funding to advance its research and development on the disease, looking toward a rich and fruit-filled future.