May 5, 2023
Identifying a problem, then finding a solution has been the genesis for countless startup companies.
That’s what makes Payam Pourtaheri and Ameer Shakeel’s entrepreneurial journey so unique. As undergraduate students in the University of Virginia’s School of Engineering and Applied Science seven years ago, they did just the opposite.
Working in the lab of UVA pharmacology professor Mark Kester, Pourtaheri and Shakeel created a bioparticle capable of breaking down a wide range of substances.
There was just one problem.
“We were excited by our platform technology and its potential, but we did not know the best use case for it,” Pourtaheri recalled. “We were basically looking for a problem to solve with a solution in hand.”
Kester advised Pourtaheri and Shakeel to prove their technology by “going after some low-hanging fruit” – and that is literally what they did.
Pourtaheri and Shakeel began testing their technology on grapes at local vineyards, and soon after decided that trying to safely degrade the harmful pesticides on crops would be the best application.
In 2016, AgroSpheres was born. Today, the company – which obtained one of its patents through the UVA Licensing & Ventures Group, and last year announced a multi-year collaboration with Bayer to create novel modalities of biologicals for use as crop protection products – is thriving.
On Thursday afternoon, Pourtaheri and Shakeel – with Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin in attendance – announced plans to build a pilot fermentation plant in a building near their company headquarters on Seminole Trail in Charlottesville. They will do so using $25 million from a recent AgroSpheres investment round.
“The milestone that we are celebrating today is tremendous – a $25 million investment to expand in Albemarle County, creating 53 spectacular, high-paying jobs in order to increase production space, constructing a research and development facility and a demonstration facility for new products,” Youngkin said. “All right here. Really awesome.”
Youngkin was effusive in his praise of Pourtaheri and Shakeel.
“Payam and Ameer founded this business while they were in school – and they finished school,” Youngkin said. “It’s a testament to grit and determination and vision. It’s a testament to believing that you can achieve. And it is a testament, I think, to Virginia.”
Youngkin added: “Agriculture technology is on the move, and these guys are leading it, and Virginia is at the forefront.”
AgroSpheres is a product of the Darden School of Business’ i.Lab Incubator. UVA Assistant Vice President for Economic Development Pace Lochte, whose office supports the region and commonwealth’s efforts to expand and recruit knowledge-based industry, said AgroSpheres is a shining example of how the entrepreneurial ecosystem that the University and community foster can lead to societal impact.
“AgroSpheres shows how meaningful connections between students, faculty, alumni and public- and private-sector partners can lead to dynamic companies that transform markets, create high-quality jobs and contribute to economic vitality in our region and the commonwealth,” Lochte said. “We are delighted to see innovation-based startups thriving in our area’s powerful ecosystem and continuing to grow.”
A benefit of AgroSpheres’s proprietary platform is that it is suitable for all types of crops.
“Enhanced shelf-life and field-stability make it so that any farmer can use the technology with their existing equipment,” Pourtaheri said.
Added Shakeel: “Our vision is local manufacturing, but global impact. Our farmers in Charlottesville can use these products; our farmers in southeast Asia can use these products.”
Looking into the future, Pourtaheri and Shakeel – who were selected to Forbes’ “30 Under 30” list in 2021 – said they hope AgroSpheres will become a leader in transitioning the crop protection and nutrition space to environmentally friendly practices.
“Inventing is just the first step,” Shakeel said. “From that point, to bring the technology to the world and have a global impact, it takes a village. We’re blessed that we have the state, the county and Charlottesville supporting us.”
Already, the company has raised roughly $40 million in investments and grants and has built a diverse and dynamic team.
“We are excited to invest in growing the biotech hub here in Charlottesville,” Pourtaheri said.
Pourtaheri said it’s been a fun and humbling journey coming from a small bench in professor Mark Kester’s lab. He said AgroSpheres is forever grateful to Kester, a co-founder who died unexpectedly last August.
“If you knew Mark … he would have been bouncing off the walls telling [people] that the governor is coming to see his boys,” Pourtaheri said. “We’re missing him a little bit more today. He really encouraged us to get out there.”