ViAqua Therapeutics, an Israel headquartered startup that has developed a biotechnology-based, oral delivery platform for the targeted administration of RNA-based solutions to improve disease resistance in aquaculture, has completed a US$8.25m investment round.
The funding generated will enable ViAqua to bring its first product to market; that is designed to improve the ability of shrimp to cope with viral disease challenges. The financing will also allow the startup to invest in R&D for future products, and to validate the ability of the platform to deliver RNA-based solutions at scale.
S2G Ventures led the investment round, with participation from Rabo Ventures, The Trendlines Group Ltd, Agriline Limited, Nutreco, I-Lab Angels and Circle Investments.
The Israeli firm’s first product will be incorporated into a commercially produced feed for shrimp.
“Oral delivery is the holy grail of aquaculture health development due to both the impossibility of vaccinating individual shrimp and its ability to substantially bring down the operational costs of disease management while improving outcomes,” according to ViAqua CEO and co-founder, Shai Ufaz.
Inhibiting gene expression
ViAqua’s technology, he explained, silences disease-affected genes through feed. It uses RNA molecules to inhibit gene expression. The coated particles, administered orally, active a cell reaction that disables the viral infections to which shrimp and other aquaculture species are exposed.
The company has conducted challenge tests in facilities in Belgium, the US and in Thailand, demonstrating that its formulation, when fed to shrimp, significantly improved their survival rate against the lethal White Spot Virus (WSSV), added Ufaz.
Historically, the challenge with RNA-based technologies included the costs of production and efficient delivery in an aquatic environment. ViAqua said its technology overcomes such challenges through its production platform and novel encapsulation delivery method. The formulation is stable in the aquatic environment and is able to withstand barriers in the digestive system of shrimp.
Rabobank’s aquaculture specialists, Gorjan Nikolik and Novel Sharma, were impressed by the game-changing impact potential of having a solution for an issue that has plagued the shrimp sector for decades and one that can make a meaningful difference in the lives of the smallholder farmers, who represent 80% of supply.
“Shrimp has the highest mortality rate or any farmed species. In parts of Asia, mortality is many times more than that of other farmed species. This is a combination of a low biosecurity and lack of tools to combat diseases. Antibiotics are used mostly because there are no vaccines available. ViAqua potentially has exactly the solution the sector needs. It can save millions in cost of mortality and antibiotics in a safe and sustainable way and thus enabling more stable farm performance for shrimp farmers,” commented Nikolik.
ViAqua started in 2014, as an incubator in Israel. “We used the first three years to demonstrate proof of concept, that we could deliver double-stranded RNA through feed,” Ufaz told FeedNavigator.
His PhD in plant molecular biology and his work in the area of RNAi combined well with the expertise of the other co-founder, Shai Einbinder, who has a PhD in marine biology, steering them in the direction of a technology aimed at boosting disease resistance in shrimp and other aquaculture species.
The two founders explored potential delivery systems with Avi Schroeder, professor of chemical engineering, Technion-Israel Institute of Technology, and the company developed from there.
Schroeder now also provides scientific advise to ViAqua; the company's management team includes a broad range of business development, technology development, management, and industrial biotech experts.
ViAqua has also established a commercial partnership with Nutreco’s fish feed arm, Skretting.
“In 2019, having proved the concept, a seed round followed with Nutreco coming on board as an investor, along with other parties, and Skretting signing a joint development agreement with us.”
Launch markets, wider applications
Thailand and Ecuador are the two countries ViAqua is targeting for the launch of its WSSV orientated product, with market introduction set for the end of 2024. “We are scaling up production. We invested a lot in taking production from pilot scale in Israel to a more commercial level in Slovenia last year. Now we are undertaking a tech transfer to a company in India that will produce the product,” said Ufaz.
The RNA technology has numerous applications in aquaculture and beyond, which the company continues to explore.
“The end product is a powder that can be mixed in feed. If we want to target a different disease in shrimp, we simply alter the RNAi sequence; outside of that, the process remains the same.
“We have initiated the proof of concept for parasitic diseases in shrimp, and we have already seen encouraging results.
“We are also working to develop a formulation for fish, and we have started a joint project with a company in Singapore in relation to Barramundi, targeting Scale-Drop Disease Virus (SDDV) in that species.
“Outside aquaculture, we see potential for the RNAi technology in poultry, and against diseases that infect pollinating bees,” said the co-founder.