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Ag Biotech Showcased at NCBiotech

Al Bender is an experienced entrepreneur who knows a good thing when he sees it.

So when the North Carolina Biotechnology Center helped him with some $193,000 in loans plus a significant introduction, he was ready to do business.

Bender, a Ph.D. serial entrepreneur, is one of nine ag biotech business leaders who pitched their companies’ assets to more than 150 participants in the Ag Biotech Entrepreneurial Showcase 2014 Tuesday at NCBiotech.

Ron Stotish, Ph.D., executive director, president and CEO of AquaBounty Technologies, talks shop after his keynote address at NCBiotech's Ag Biotech Entrepreneurial Showcase 2014.

The event also included panel discussions and two keynote speeches by CEOs of two high-tech food companies who shared stories of their years-long battles to bring their products to market.

Bender is CEO of Raleigh-based NanoVector, a ​North Carolina State University spin-out that is developing a cancer treatment using a plant virus.

The technology uses tobacco plants from nearby vaccine maker Medicago, but tweaks them differently. Medicago has garnered global attention and a Japanese parent for its technology making vaccines from viral-like particles grown in tobacco.

Gwyn Riddick saw a connection between what NanoVector and Medicago were doing. Riddick, MBA, at the time was an NCBiotech vice president. He's still NCBiotech's top consultant for agricultural biotechnology.

Unlike Medicago’s vaccine technology, NanoVector grows a common plant virus in the tobacco leaves. But thanks to Riddick's connection, NanoVector now buys its tobacco leaf "factories" from nearby Medicago.

NanoVector uses those leaves to grow and modify its plant virus, converting that harmless virus into a nanoparticle with an empty pocket in the center. By inserting widely used cancer drugs into that pocket, and adding a “steering mechanism” to the particles' outsides, NanoVector can deliver cancer drugs to cancer cells without damaging healthy ones. And because the nanoparticle "wheelbarrows" are so specific to cancer cells, they can deliver mega-doses of cancer drug to cancer cells that would otherwise be toxic.

These tiny "smart bombs," thousands of times smaller than the width of a human hair, are gizmos with huge potential for use in humans, animals and potentially even plants.

The Showcase gave Bender and his fellow entrepreneurs an opportunity to unwind their stories to a potent audience of peers, investors and corporate ag biotech scouts.

It’s the second year in a row NCBiotech has organized the event, supported by numerous sponsors involved in a wide range of ag biotech activities. Participants applauded the opportunity to gather at the global hub of ag biotech.

Among the crop biotech and animal health firms making pitches, three were loan recipients from NCBiotech. Besides NanoVector, there were:

BioDeptronix of Chapel Hill, which borrowed $25,000 in 2012 to get the company started. CEO Chris Price, Ph.D., discussed his cell-based bio-screening instrument that tests air samples for toxins. Though it’s initially targeting research applications to explore toxic effects of pollution on humans, Price said the company intends to expand into testing the effects of air pollution on plants.

Amanda Elam, CEO of Galaxy Diagnostics in Research Triangle Park, outlined her company’s technology, originally developed to test for cat scratch fever, officially known as Bartonella bacterial infection. Galaxy’s diagnostic, developed at North Carolina State University, led to two NCBiotech loans. One, for $50,000 in 2008, helped the company get off the ground. The other, nearly $59,000, in 2012, helped expand its diagnostic reach to other hard-to-detect “stealth” infections that can lead to chronic health problems.

Other young North Carolina companies giving presentations are Crop Microclimate Management of Apex and Mercury Science of Raleigh.

The event also included rollouts from Climate Adaptive Genetics of Murfreesboro Tenn., ProteiosBio of Charlottesville, Va., Stony Creek Colors of Nashville, Tenn. and VRM Labs of Easley, S.C., near Greenville.

The event closed with two big names in the field – Neal Carter, president and co-founder of Okanagan Specialty Fruits, and Ron Stotish, Ph.D., executive director, president and CEO of AquaBounty Technologies.

Okanagan’s flagship product is the non-browning Arctic apple, which is expected to become commercially available later this year. Waltham, Mass.-based AquaBounty has spent the past two decades developing and awaiting government approvals for its advanced-hybrid salmon, trout, and tilapia designed to grow faster than traditional fish.

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