[Source: Ken Alltucker, The Arizona Republic] – Everett P. Hale was enjoying the leisurely pace of San Diego last summer when he got a call from friend Loretta Mayer.
Hale, CEO of a California-based nutraceuticals business that sells such items as herbs and health foods, had no interest in adding an out-of-state, experimental business to his schedule.
That is, until Mayer asked him: “How would you like to feed 1 billion people?”
Today, Hale serves as CEO of SenesTech, a startup Flagstaff company launched by a trio of Northern Arizona University scientists who believe they have discovered a technology that can be used to bolster crop yields and increase the world’s food supply.
On Tuesday, at the annual Biotechnology Industry Organization convention in San Diego, SenesTech unveiled terms of a research pact with Australia that allows the Arizona biotech company to test its rodent-control technology on the rice-field rats of West Java.
The deal is a significant milestone for the small company because it allows a chance to show whether its chemical-spay technology can protect large rice crops from the parasitic, long-fanged rats.
Under terms of the deal, SenesTech scientists will join Australian government officials in Java to set baits of the chemical-spay compound that targets the ovaries of female rats. Rats that consume the bait will become sterile within one month, SenesTech said.
The experiment will start this fall on a 2.5-acre site under an agreement with the Invasive Animals Cooperative Research Centre in Canberra, Australia.
The technology was developed at the University of Arizona. UA has licensed one facet of the technology – called mouseopause – to Jackson Laboratory, which provides research mice to scientists.
Mayer said the technology already has been proven in the lab. It will be the first such large-scale spay experiment on the rice-field rats, which are prolific procreators. A single female rat can have three litters of 12 to 18 pups during a single harvest season.
If rice-producing nations increased crop production by 10 percent, it would yield enough food to feed 380 million people. That would provide a bountiful harvest in an era of escalating food prices and fears of worldwide rice shortages.
“As a result of their (rats) voracious appetite, they destroy hundreds of crops and people go hungry,” said Cheryl Dyer, the company’s chief scientific officer and a research professor at NAU.
SenesTech is attempting to commercialize facets of the technology, including the spay technology, which the company calls ContraPest.
The company employs about 17 in Flagstaff with plans to grow as its technology catches on. The company already has raised $2 million and soon will close on an additional $9 million private placement, Hale said.
The company will soon move into a new Flagstaff technology incubator called the Northern Arizona Center for Emerging Technologies.
SenesTech representatives don’t see any ethical challenges of spaying field rats. The practice will preserve valuable crops without the use of poison that potentially can harm the environment or humans.
“This particular species of rat is nothing but a pest,” Dyer said. “There is nobody who is going to stand up for the rice-field rat.”