Fatma Kaplan’s advice to her younger self is fairly straightforward. “Skip the postdoc and start a company,” she says matter-of-factly. Kaplan’s journey from scientist to business entrepreneur was unplanned, but if she were to do it again, she says she’d focus on commercializing products rather than limiting them to laboratories.
As the daughter of specialty crop farmers in Turkey, she had planned for a career as an academic and scientist in horticulture. As Kaplan writes in a Science magazine column, “For years, I had been committed to pursuing the traditional academic path because I wanted to run an independent research program and teach. I thought a tenure-track faculty position was the one job that offered both.”
Kaplan accepted a postdoctoral position at the National High Magnetic Field Laboratory, a facility at the University of Florida where she focused on the chemistry and behavior of nematode with pheromones. Little did she know but the seeds of the future company were planted during this time. “I knew pheromones were important, but I did think someone from the agriculture industry would pick it up,” she says.
Controlling insect pests with pheromones was already being done on farms, but controlling nematodes with pheromones was new territory. Kaplan had the idea that with a chemical structured identified it could now be applied to specific plant-parasitic nematodes. In a milestone of achievement in the academic world, she published the research in the prestigious scientific journal Nature in 2008.
“Farmers needed a solution to control plant-specific nematodes,” she recalls. “For me, my heart is with farmers wherever they run their farm in the world.” Fatma Kaplan launched Pheronym Inc. in 2017 to create products that provide safe and eco-friendly pest control. The company was recently accepted into the THRIVE AgTech Accelerator, which focuses on connecting Salinas Valley and Silicon Valley.
While not yet marketed, Pheronym’s core products are biopesticides that use pheromones to control nematodes, which in turn control 25 different insect pests. Nemastim is a bee-friendly pest control that disperses the beneficial nematodes and tackles pest insects. A second product, Pherocoat, serves as a repellent and alerts the plant-parasitic nematodes that the host plant is already infected. The core customers are growers specifically in the specialty crop space, including greenhouse growers for Nemastim. The core customers for the Pherocoat, a seed treatment, are both specialty and row crops.
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