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California Nanopore Firm Shifts Focus to Ag Market

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NEW YORK (GenomeWeb) – Following a name change and rebranding last month, University of California, Santa Cruz spinout Ontera plans to develop its solid-state nanopore technology for near-term applications in agriculture.

The company, formerly called Two Pore Guys, still aims to bring a nanopore instrument to market and said that its collaborations with corporate and not-for-profit partners will continue. The firm also announced last month that its lead investor, Khosla Ventures, exercised its final warrant for $7.5 million.

"It's the next evolution of the company," said Murielle Thinard-McLane, who joined the firm as CEO in February. "The company is nanopore sensor based, but were not only using two pore technology but also single-pore technology in our platform," she said, suggesting it had simply outgrown the old name, derived from a nickname for the research group that developed the firm's double nanopore technology.

Along with a new name, Ontera has a new focus: releasing its first instrument, for several use cases in the global ag-bio market, which the firm values at $5 trillion.

With increased pressure from climate change and population growth, agriculture has "unaddressed needs" Ontera can help with, Thinard-McLane said.  "It's going to be extremely important to help curb increasing pathogen resistance. We see ourselves as owning a pretty key technology for that," she said.  

The firm aims to provide agronomists with instruments and assays to test for the presence of pathogens and their resistance to pesticides.

"To date, when there is pathogen in the fields, you spray with as many things as you can to try and control it," Thinard-McLane explained. "You may do testing, but when you do, you send the sample to a central lab to inform yourself after the fact, to leverage for the next season. It's not information you can use right away."

Ontera has several partnerships with large crop science companies, she said, that are developing seeds and crop protections; however, she declined to disclose information about them. She said the partnerships are centered around particular use cases, adding that some utilize well-known assays and others proprietary assays.

In 2017, Monsanto signed a deal with the firm to evaluate its technology for agricultural applications. Monsanto has since been acquired by Bayer and Thinard-McLane said the collaboration would continue under the Ontera banner.

Ontera is hoping to bring SAM, its portable, single-pore, multiplex analyzer, to market in March 2020. Along with a new focus on agriculture, the company has a new approach to assay development: whereas Two Pore Guys previously relied on outside groups to develop assays for its platform, Ontera is now developing assays with its partners in the ag-bio market that will focus on a particular crop, a particular pest, and particular resistance genes.

"It's about testing for a hypothesis," Thinard-McLane said. "How much of that pathogen is present? Is it resistant to something?"

In the meantime, partnerships with the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, to develop testing for tuberculosis, and with the University of California, San Francisco, on liquid biopsy, remain ongoing. Thinard-McLane said the liquid biopsy project has begun the process of getting IRB approval and has started obtaining clinical samples.

"We will continue to work on the same platform for human use cases in infectious disease, but with human diagnostics, it's a longer process to get to approval and implementation; as such, we're going to be there a bit later," she said, adding that the firm is in active discussion with other potential partners, whom she declined to disclose, about collaborations on testing human samples.

Looking even further ahead, the firm has advanced its two-pore technology "a little bit," but it remains research-oriented, Thinard-McLane said. "We can do genome mapping and structural variants. We cannot do sequencing," she said. The firm is not actively working on developing that technology for sequencing but is open to partnering on that.

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