Spider research helps Vestaron build a better pesticide

The key to killing pests can be found inside spider venom and at Vestron they are tapping that mechanism to create what they believe will be a pesticide that does not do the damage created by today's peticides. Kim North Shine talks to Dr. John Sorenson.
For nearly nine years scientists in a lab on Western Michigan University's campus have been on the hunt for a better, safer way to kill bugs, and they have apparently found it in one of Mother Nature's most efficient exterminators: the spider.

Working with spider venom--actually the teeny tiny peptides from the protein in the venom--chemists, biochemists and biotech engineers at Kalamazoo start-up, Vestaron Corp., think they have discovered how to kill pests without wreaking havoc on land, water or air. Last month the Environmental Protection Agency approved the active ingredient the scientists pulled from the venom, giving Vestaron the go-ahead to go commercial, and quite possibly change the pesticide industry as a whole.

"This is a very big deal. We think this could revolutionize pesticides," says Dr. John Sorenson, Vestaron’s chief executive officer. It’s an ongoing battle, the search for a pesticide that outwits pests’ tendency to build resistance and to invent a product that will make consumers feel more at ease about how food crops are treated.

"Insecticides historically have been very bad actors: highly toxic to humans, highly toxic to environment," Dr. Sorenson says. "There are very few that have the environmental profile and human safety profile" of Vestaron's.

The EPA's OK for what is expected to be the first of at least three commercial products sold by Vestaron takes the startup to the next level. Vestaron’s first EPA approved product is expected to go through pre-commercial demonstration trials in 2014 and be fully launched by 2015.

"We were totally research and development until this point," says Dr. Sorenson. "We're looking forward to making the switch from research and development to research and commercial sales."

"This biopesticide is one of a vast number of similar compounds that exist in nature, from which we intend to source many new, unique insect control products," says Dr. Sorenson. "In addition, Vestaron is incorporating the gene for this peptide into a new generation of insect-resistant plants. We’re also synthesizing compounds that mimic the peptide’s action."

By the end of the year, Dr. Sorenson says Vestaron will add four employees to its staff of 12. Eight of the staffers are scientists.

"It's amazing what they do," says Sorenson.

Working with a spider venom that was harnessed in a University of Connecticut lab years ago and later purchased by Vestaron for research, "our scientists isolated the venom, which is a complex cocktail of several thousand small peptides…These peptides, which have a fantastic environmental safety and human safety profile, meet the highest levels of EPA standards. They are innocuous to mammals. They break down easily…There's no run-off, no environmental impacts.

"We're pretty much leading the way. We expect some competition once this idea catches on."

Vestaron’s four new hires this year will focus on getting the product to consumers.

And after that, "if we're not acquired by a major chemical company we’ll do an IPO in a few years."

Vestaron’s scientists' discoveries along the way have been wins for its angel investors and venture capitalists, but the EPA approval is a major victory. It was all the more sweet since it came earlier than the startup's timeline projected.

"We're well ahead of schedule," says Dr. Sorenson. "We've really made tremendous progress. We have a great management team. More than that we have a great team of scientists who are extremely productive. We actually are ahead on all three projects."

The projects primarily focus on directly killing pests, growing plants that are pest-resistant and on incorporating modes of action into a pesticide. Modes of action are "how insecticide kills an insect, how the biochemical machinery gets gunked up…It's a big deal to find a new mode of actions," says Dr. Sorenson.

The initial target market is crop-growers such as corn farmers who lose billions to the corn worm each year, followed by animal health and then home and garden.

Dr. Sorenson sees the startup going global, a process that will require more staff and more approvals from other governmental bodies.

"It’s a lot of work to do and we're just a small company. We're doing what we can to make sure as many people as possible are using what we believe is a much safer product."

He says Vestaron’s groundbreaking discoveries might have gone undiscovered without the support of investors and the Southwest Michigan Innovation Center, a business incubator and accelerator that supports innovative, entrepreneurial life science businesses. It operates a 69,000 square-foot-facility on the WMU campus. Interns from WMU work at Vestaron as do graduates. Scientists are local and from other parts of the country and the world.

"They host us as well as a number of other companies that are carrying on the (pharmaceutical and life sciences) traditions of this area remarkably well, " says Dr. Sorenson, who comes from a background in pharmaceuticals and food and plant crop management.

The Innovation Center provided lab space, machine space, and "many things that independent companies like us couldn't afford," says Dr. Sorenson.

"Once we get on our feet, we turn our space back, and new companies come in," he says. "It helps companies like ours weather the first 10 to 15 years of research."

Despite the arachnid-focused research, it never directly involves the eight-legged creatures.

"I've been on the board for about six years now and I've never seen a spider at the lab," Dr. Sorenson, says, chuckling.

The milking of the spiders, as it's known, or aspirating venom directly from the spiders' fangs having and their poison captured took place at the University of Connecticut. Vestaron acquired and patented three peptides from that research.

"We don't even work with the venom anymore. But what we’ve learned from that venom is just amazing, and every day the research continues. It's exciting to be a part of it."

After years spent with large organizations, including North Carolina State University, Upjohn Pharmaceuticals,  Syngenta Seeds and Monsanto Seeds and GMOs, Sorenson says, "my first experience with a startup has been a ball. I have really enjoyed it. I know it's corny to say, but it's really like a family. And everyone is so motivated."

The motivation is driven in part by the desire to address a threat to public health while also protecting industries that create many jobs and are the backbone to our reliable food system.

"It may sound like a cliche, but for all of us here the motivation is to do good for the world, and we see a real opportunity to do that," Dr. Sorenson says. "So in addition to the science and the challenges and the business side of things, we really do see the chance to make a difference."

Kim North Shine  helped launch Southwest Michingan's Second Wave and is a Michigan-based freelance writer.
Enjoy this story? Sign up for free solutions-based reporting in your inbox each week.