The Origin Story

How spider venom led to a revolution in agriculture

Vestaron research laboratory in Research Triangle Park, North Carolina

Vestaron is leading a revolution in crop protection with peptide-based products that combine the safety and sustainability of biologicals with the efficacy of synthetic chemistry. Founded in 2005, the company commercialized in 2020 with the introduction of the SPEAR® bioinsecticide portfolio of products to the US market becoming the first company to register a peptide-based pesticide for crop protection by isolating peptides found in spider venom.

Vestaron reads like a comic book origin story:  scientists studying spiders stumble onto the Australian Blue Mountains funnel-web spider with one of the most complex venoms ever discovered.  As this spider’s venom can be fatal to mammals it seemed an unlikely candidate for use as a human-friendly agricultural product.  However, looking deeper, the scientists discovered that several of the venom’s constituent compounds have low toxicity to everything tested except specific insects that fall prey to the spider (and that happen to be pests in agricultural production of fruits, vegetables, and crops).

Prof. Glenn King, Professor of Biochemistry and Microbiology at Queensland University in Australia, was digging into the structure of (the spider venom peptide) and realized some of the components were only toxic to specific insects of interest and, importantly, with no observed effects on bees.   Realizing the potential of this discovery, Prof. King filed patents and in 2005 founded the company that would become Vestaron as a means of bringing this technology to farmers and the agriculture industry.”
~ Dr. Robert Kennedy, Chief Science Officer at Vestaron,

Blaizing a Trail

“We knew we had something that was really effective and could be targeted, kind of like synthetics. But this is more natural, it’s not just biological; it’s somewhere in the middle,” Dr. Kennedy describes. “Like many companies in the beginning, we had no idea what we wanted to be when we grew up. And the big companies, the chemical companies, had already decided it wouldn’t work to spray these peptides in a volume high enough to be effective. We were on our own, and it took us a while to realize we were in the business of solving three problems no one had before.”

Those problems were:

  1. How do we make enough of the peptides to be effective at a reasonable cost?
  2. How do we get the peptides into the insect?
  3. How do we get the regulatory agencies to understand and approve the products?
Plants are examined in research trials in a Vestaron greenhouse
Plants are examined in research trials in a Vestaron greenhouse

The production challenges came first as it’s obviously not feasible to milk funnel-web spiders. Consequently, the Vestaron team synthesized and optimized the genes from the venom, put them into yeast, and thereby learned to produce the product through a fermentation process at commercially viable scale.

Next, researchers had to figure out how to get the peptides produced from the fermentation process into the target insects—an essential step to protect crops as intended. “It’s different than a spider catching an insect prey and injecting its venom directly into it,” explains Dr. Kennedy. “Our product will be ingested by the insect, so we need a means to allow the peptides to survive the insects’ gut and become available in the bloodstream. What we ultimately did was combine the peptide with a very low dose of another natural product that disrupts the gut and makes it somewhat permeable allowing the insecticidal peptide we’ve created to get through.”

Finally, the company needed regulatory approval. As Dr. Kennedy explains, “The regulatory review was a major unknown as this product was completely novel and without precedent. Every department at the EPA weighed in and asserted that they should be the ones to regulate us. However, given that this is a relatively low-risk class of molecules (especially given the synthetic chemical alternatives) it was decided that we would be given a biopesticide classification with the much smoother regulatory path such products are given.”

In 2018, Vestaron brought on veteran agriculture and tech start-up leader Anna Rath as CEO to help lead the shift from R&D to commercialization and global growth. The company grew from 15 people to over 85, began manufacturing profitably and at scale in the US, raised over $200M in three oversubscribed funding rounds, and established major retail partnerships in the crop protection market.

Vestaron staff and farmers walk the fields checking for pest pressure

Transforming Agricultural Sustainability 

Vestaron’s mission is to move farmers from chemical synthetics to peptide-based crop protection products to make agriculture more sustainable.

How Vestaron’s peptide-based products deliver on sustainability:

  • Farm worker safety: workers can re-enter fields after only four hours
  • Consumer safety: use of peptides avoids endocrine issues linked to some synthetic chemical pesticide residues
  • Water quality: peptides rapidly biodegrade after use with no lingering impacts on the water supply
  • Biodiversity: peptide-based products can be sprayed when pollinators are active in fields and will not indirectly cause harm beyond the targeted pest
  • Renewable: peptides are produced via fermentation rather than fossil fuels
  • Soil health: peptides degrade to amino acids—a generally available nutrient–and are soft on the soil microbiome
  • Land use: as synthetic chemical pesticides lose their effectiveness due to increased pest resistance and as such products are increasingly being banned by regulators, crop yields are under threat. Peptides, by providing an effective alternative to chemical pesticides, help to prevent this yield loss thereby avoiding the need to bring new land into agricultural use.

Just Getting Started

Vestaron Research and Development offices in the Western Michigan University campus in Kalamazoo, Michigan

Vestaron’s story is still in its early days as the company begins to expand into new geographies such as Canada, Mexico, Brazil, and the EU. For Dr. Kennedy and the research and development team at Vestaron, there is no shortage of work going forward. There are more crops to protect and different pests to target. The Vestaron team is focused on bringing new and different modes of action to the market to prevent pests developing resistance to any one product. Vestaron’s products currently focus on insecticides, but different categories like antimicrobials and fungicides are in development.

Vestaron’s research and development team has been very productive with over 332 pending patent applications and 137 issued patents.

I had no idea we would be founding a new field. In science, it’s always exciting to being the first to a new space. Building on our success we will just keep facing the next set of challenges and figure out a way forward each time. There’s a lot more to come over here.”
~ says Dr. Kennedy

MEDIA CONTACTS: 

Ben Cicora, SVP Sales & Marketing • (970) 443.9220 • bcicora@vestaron.com
Steve Betz, Sr Director of Communications • (515) 665.7683 • sbetz@vestaron.com