Like many scientific discoveries, the idea behind the Raleigh-based startup Agile Sciences arose from a simple observation, in this case of picture taken in the warm waters of the Caribbean. Every surface was covered in barnacles and algae, says microbiologist John Cavanagh, except one – a sponge.
Cavanagh and his research partner suspected the tidy sponge was uniquely able to ward off biofilms, thin layers of scum that allow other organisms to attach themselves to surfaces.
“There’s this buildup of biofilms everywhere, but the sponge has figured out how to keep itself clean,” says Cavanagh, a professor at North Carolina State University’s College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. “It has no immune system, and it can’t run away.”
He and chemist Christian Melander found an enzyme secreted by sponges that inhibits biofilm growth, and started Agile Sciences in 2007 to explore its commercial uses. Their first product will likely be a treatment for citrus canker, the black film that is the scourge of the Florida orange industry.
Agile Sciences is one 50 companies in the Triangle region, employing 7,700 people, which are engaged in creating new agricultural products. Many of these companies are small startups leveraging the toolboxes of biology, chemistry and other sciences to improve crop production, fight pests and more.
This new wave of startups is combining the state’s agricultural know-how with cutting edge research to make the Triangle a major hub for agricultural startups — what Boston is to pharmaceuticals or what Silicon Valley is to software.
While the Triangle is known as the third largest hub of the biotech industry, it is likely the largest for agricultural biotech, says Karen Batra, a food and agriculture specialist with the national Biotechnology Industry Organization.
“For ag biotech, the Research Triangle is really tops,” says Batra. “There’s definitely a concentration there you don’t see in other places.”
At the heart of the Research Triangle is Research Triangle Park, or RTP, a 7,000-acre campus with 170 companies devoted largely to research and development. Some of the world’s largest agricultural companies have major operations there, including Bayer CropScience, BASF and Syngenta.
Surrounding RTP are two other key drivers for agricultural startups: first, acres of farmland that make North Carolina a leading producer of crops and livestock. And, second, several major universities, in particular NC State, a land-grant institution with a large and respected agriculture college.
“The Triangle region has a long history in agriculture, and it has lots of skilled and trained scientists as well as entrepreneurs,” says Gwyn Riddick, an agriculture specialist at the nonprofit N.C. Biotechnology Center. “It’s perfect for the development of this type of industry.”
NC State has always produced agricultural innovations, says Steve Lommel, director of research at its agriculture college. But the pace has accelerated in recent years. In the past five years, NC State researchers were awarded 425 patents and launched 32 startups. His college alone was awarded 160 patents and launched five startups during that time.
Lommel says the combination of the university and industry research makes the Triangle rich in one of the most important ingredients for a startup culture: people.
“(The Triangle) is the world epicenter for ag research,” says Lommel. “We have this thriving community, and we all talk to one another. We can attract better talent than anyone else.”
Lommel estimates that up to 10 percent of faculty members in his college have commercialized some part of their research, himself among them. Nearby, Duke University and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill have also spun off agricultural startups.
The universities have fostered startups with innovation funds and other programs that go back more than a decade. In recent years, private money has also boosted the trend.
MONEY AND MARKETS
Globally, the agricultural biotechnology market is valued at $14 billion, with $5 billion of that value in U.S.-based companies. It is expected to be worth $24.8 billion by 2017, according to market research by Companiesandmarkets.com. In the past two years, eight ag biotech companies have announced more than $300 million in prospective investments in North Carolina, which would bring about 950 jobs to the state.
Yet Giles Shih felt like a pioneer when he and his father started BioResource International 13 years ago, a company that has since sold 2,000 tons of a natural additive that helps chickens digest food, lowering the cost of feed.
“When we would pitch to venture capital investors, they were like ‘What are you talking about? Chicken feed?’” says Shih, the company CEO. “Nowadays, they know the value there.”
The success of several local startups that were bought out by large agribusinesses caught the attention of investors. One of those was Athenix Corp., which created new crop strains and was bought by Bayer CropScience for $365 million in 2009.
The dropping cost of once cutting-edge technologies has enhanced the bottom line for some startups. DNA sequencing, in particular, is “one of the tools that have changed the game,” says Phil Hammer of AgBiome, a company formed this year by a group of former Athenix scientists.
AgBiome is collecting thousands of soil and root samples in a massive effort to map the so-called plant biome, the vast array of bacteria and other microbes that influence a plant’s growth.
The company has raised $14.5 million in private financing toward the effort – one that Hammer says would have been impossible even five years ago, when the cost of creating a genetic sequence for a single strand of bacteria would have been prohibitive.
Now, he says, the information will help develop a wide array of natural agricultural products: “These bacteria are affecting everything from nutrient uptake to pest resistance and yield.”
AgBiome was deliberately structured so that it will be able to sell individual technologies while keeping the company intact, avoiding what Hammer calls the “slash and burn” model where startups are bought by larger companies and forced to start new ventures from scratch.
University researchers face a different kind of challenge in finding markets for their discoveries – and knowing when to let others guide their research to market.
Cavanagh, of Agile Sciences, says research savvy doesn’t always translate to business sense. The sponge enzyme he is using, for instance, has multiple uses, and his instinct was to pursue them all. A team of business consultants helped the company focus on the products with the most viable markets, while he continued with his university research.
“There are two types of people who go through this, the ones who think they’re business people and the ones that know they’re not,” says Cavanagh. “It’s a powerful distinction.”
Some researchers choose to leave academia, following their discoveries to the business world. But Cavanagh says he’s content in his university lab, where business concerns don’t have to drive his research. Not all important discoveries, he notes, have the profit potential of the tidy sponge.
Maguire is a freelance writer in the Research Triangle.