This Professor’s Invention is Helping Make Your Fruits and Vegetables Safer to Eat

June 23, 2022
Left: Picked Strawberries in a pile Center: Farm equipment working in a field Right: Green plants growing

Lytos’ organic, protein-based alternatives to chemical pesticides have proven effective in tests with strawberries and spinach. (Photo illustration by Emily Faith Morgan, University Communications)

The list is called the “Dirty Dozen,” and if you’re a fruit or vegetable lover, it’s the last place you want to see your favorite produce.

Published annually by the Environmental Working Group, a nonprofit organization that specializes in the research of toxic chemicals, the list ranks the 12 fruits and vegetables that contain the most pesticides.

Topping this year’s Dirty Dozen are strawberries and spinach – but hopefully not for long, thanks to an invention by Bryan Berger, an associate professor of chemical engineering in the University of Virginia School of Engineering and Applied Science.

Berger has always had a passion for the environment, so when he realized he could do something to improve both food safety and human health and reduce waste, he plowed full steam ahead like a tractor in the middle of a fall harvest.

The net result: Lytos.

Founded in 2018, the company’s goal was to create green, sustainable and safer alternatives to chemical pesticides and disinfectants.

In 2019, with the help of the UVA Licensing & Ventures Group – the intellectual property management and innovation commercialization organization for the University’s research portfolio – Lytos licensed Berger’s patented novel biofungicide technology.

Today, that technology – which Berger developed in his UVA lab – is of keen interest to companies that produce the agrochemical products that growers use, as well as major growers and producers of specialty agricultural crops, such as wine.

Berger is optimistic about the future health of fruits and vegetables – especially strawberries and spinach.

“Our products were tested on strawberries and spinach and are highly effective,” Berger said, “so we are going to save those products and many others from the dubious distinction of being on the Dirty Dozen.”

Recently, the LVG communications office caught up with Berger – who last month was recognized as the Charlottesville Business Innovation Council’s Innovator of the Year – to learn more.

Q. Can you take us back to the origins of starting Lytos? Why were you so driven?

A. For me personally, I really care deeply about protecting our environment, so it is there for future generations to enjoy; this means we have to think about ways of food production that are sustainable and safe. With a projected 9 billion people to feed by 2050, this is a major challenge, even more so when we look at the effects of a changing climate on agriculture.

Two of the major solutions that have been identified are producing more food from existing farms and reducing waste. Both are necessary, and both require innovative, sustainable and safe ways of producing food to take care of our planet.

Some of the negative consequences of climate change are already apparent – chemical pesticide overuse is increasing and putting over 60% of global agricultural land at risk of pesticide pollution, with significant negative health and environmental impacts. And changes in weather patterns and climate are causing more disease pressure on agricultural crops. Some farms that have operated for over 100 years are unable to produce wine due to more severe and persistent fungal disease outbreaks.

Agriculture and food are a major backbone of rural communities and small towns throughout the world, and so we need to provide solutions that are safe and sustainable to help communities thrive based on agriculture and take care of our planet. This is why I focused on bio fungicides and other bio-based products at Lytos and made it our mission to work on better bioprotectants for people, plants and the planet.

Q. Can you tell us a little bit more about how Lytos’ products work?

A. Our products are proteins, and they replace chemicals used as pesticides in pre- and post-harvest agriculture. Because they are proteins, they biodegrade naturally and are safe, sustainable and organic alternatives to synthetic chemicals – often derived from petroleum products – that do not biodegrade rapidly, and therefore persist in the foods we eat. Synthetic pesticides often have hazard labels and warnings that require people to wear personal protective equipment when applying them due to their toxicity, and therefore consuming them is also a major problem. Our products are not toxic and biodegrade, so they are safe for people, plants and pollinators.

A good example is pesticides in wine. Several studies have shown that wine aroma and taste is influenced by pesticides, and pesticides persist in wine at elevated levels. Thus, countries like France are trying to phase out use of pesticides in winemaking because of their toxicity. We have done several trials in Virginia with winemakers to show our products are highly effective, and therefore provide a safe alternative to chemicals used in wine grape growing. We’re excited about our ability to help Virginia winegrowers and others provide better products in terms of quality and safety.

Berger headshot
Chemical engineering associate professor Bryan Berger says it’s imperative that we think about ways of food production that are sustainable and safe. (Photo by Tom Cogill)

Q. From a commercialization standpoint, what have been some of your biggest challenges?

A. Commercializing a biotech product is very different, challenging and oftentimes unpredictable as compared to academic research, but also very exciting and rewarding. As a founder, you quickly realize there are a lot of critical roles you have to fill that you never thought about before: bookkeeping, human resources, finding customers, managing external partners for manufacturing and figuring out regulatory requirements for registering your product, to name a few. For me, adapting to all these roles at once has been the biggest challenge, and you quickly realize the need to find people who have the industry and commercial experience necessary to help you build out your business and develop a successful go-to-market strategy.

I went through the National Science Foundation’s Innovation Corps program in 2016, which teaches faculty how to think entrepreneurially, and during my 100 customer interviews met Mark Wozniak, who has since joined us to help us develop our strategy and business. Having colleagues like Mark, who bring 20-plus years of executive experience, are crucial to making the transition successfully from academic lab to viable start-up.

Q. How did the Licensing & Ventures Group and other organizations around Grounds help get Lytos to where it is today?

A. LVG helped us early on with assisting in market analysis, business plan development and framing our potential market size for grant applications, such as the Virginia Catalyst grant that we successfully won. LVG wrote a letter of support and provided assistance in the form of market analysis for our successful grant from the state to assist with commercialization. LVG also provided patent attorneys and support to discuss our inventions and work with us to make sure our technology was strong from an intellectual property position.

UVA provided support in many important ways during the early de-risking stage of Lytos. The School of Engineering and Applied Science provided crucial early-stage support through a Research Innovation Award; this award and support from the Virginia Innovation Partnership Corporation Commonwealth Commercialization Fund and Virginia Catalyst program allowed us to perform critical experiments needed to demonstrate our technology is commercially viable before approaching LVG.

LVG and Darden also were key early-stage partners, helping to gather data important for our initial business plan. We also are very fortunate to have received support from Cav Angels, Charlottesville Angel Network and the Galant Center for Innovation and Entrepreneurship. These groups provided early and continued support to Lytos on its journey to its first commercial product and are great partners for early-stage entrepreneurs at UVA.

Q. Is there anything else you would like to add?

A. Launching Lytos has provided a number of valuable educational opportunities as well; a former student of mine who was a co-founder was able to work with Darden MBA students to learn how to develop a business plan, and ultimately inspired him to apply to Darden to pursue his own entrepreneurial path.

Post-docs who have worked with me in the transition from lab to start-up gained a variety of operational, business and research experience; these experiences inspired them to go on to become American Association for the Advancement of Science policy fellows to advocate for translational research, as well as pursue additional post-doctoral training in order to establish their own independent labs as principal investigators.

Media Contact

Whitelaw Reid

Manager of Strategic Communications University of Virginia Licensing & Ventures Group