From idea to industry

Organic pesticide developed at NMSU receives patent, moves closer to market By Lauren Goldstein ’15

Sometimes a person’s best ideas bubble to the surface at unusual times. Luke Smith’s breakthrough idea came during a graduate school summer spent bagging onions. 

The repetitive, dirty task gave him ample mental space to consider new opportunities and connections. His father, Geoffrey Smith, a biology professor and researcher at New Mexico State University, had recently told him about an organic pesticide – a biocide – that he’d helped develop in the university laboratory. The biocide used essential oils and offered a safe alternative to conventional chemical pesticides and solutions. 

As Luke heaved another sack onto a pallet, he thought, “how could I use this here? How could this innovation help fill a need for organic farmers?”

Smith, then a graduate student in accounting at NMSU, unfolded an entire business plan for his company, EcoSeal, while he stacked mesh bags in an onion shed.

To pursue the ambitious plan, Smith first set out to familiarize himself with EPA regulations regarding pesticides, which proved to be an arduous undertaking. While he imagined this as the first step, after joining a regional I-Corps program – a National Science Foundation program designed to employ customer discovery to bring innovations to market – Smith found that he would have to first conduct field tests to validate the efficacy of his product, now named NMX.

His efforts drew national attention. Upon finishing the regional program, Smith and his team, which included Luke’s father, and his NMSU faculty colleague Soum Sanogo, an associate professor of entomology, plant pathology and weed science, along with Hugo Morales, a faculty member at Universidad Chihuahua, were accepted into NSF’s National I-Corps. They received $50,000 for further work toward commercialization by identifying markets and marketability, and conducting 100 interviews with potential customers. 

Ongoing tests on California spinach crops have proven the efficacy of NMX. In other greenhouse and field tests, it has been shown to be effective in combating chile root rot, chile wilt and bacterial spot disease. Additional field tests on chile and onion crops in New Mexico are in progress.

Smith has continued to develop his product with support from Arrowhead Center, NMSU’s entrepreneurship and innovation hub. He has worked with Studio G, NMSU’s student and alumni business accelerator, as well as the LAUNCH proof-of-concept center and the New Mexico Small Business Assistance Program, which connected him with the expertise and resources of New Mexico’s national laboratories.

In a milestone for the entrepreneur, Smith recently learned that NMX has been approved for a patent. Terry Lombard, NMSU’s director of intellectual property and technology transfer, said the patent represents a big win for the company and NMSU, as it strives to take more products of faculty research to market.

“The impact of this is significant, not only for Luke and his company, but for NMSU and for multiple fields of use that this technology offers to commercialization partners,” Lombard said. “The intellectual property becomes more valuable with the protection of a patent, providing companies the benefit of a competitive advantage for the life of the patent. It’s an exciting commercialization milestone for this invention.”

Smith said the work of Lombard and the tech transfer office was instrumental in securing the patent and advancing the technology.

“The commercialization journey for NMX Green has been an exciting one,” Smith said. “The recent awarding of the utility patent is a huge step forward, allowing us to continue on the path to the market.”

Luke Smith, left, and his father, Geoffrey Smith, discuss a sample during the research phase of the project.