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NCBiotech Showcase Proves It: Ag Is A New Culture

Edison Agrosciences CEO Tom Christensen is among nine reps of startup high-tech agricultural companies pitching their technologies to a rapt Showcase audience at NCBiotech.

If you’ve never been to an event organized by ag biotech specialists from the North Carolina Biotechnology Center, your first one is likely to be a mind bender.

Today’s agriculture is a far cry from the old stereotype of overall-wearing goobers muscling “fert ‘n’ dirt.”

That’s never been more clear than it was this week as 135 movers and shakers from the expanding world of agricultural biotechnology shared ideas, auditions and a jam-packed day at NCBiotech’s third annual Ag Biotech Entrepreneurial Showcase.

The agenda listed speeches, a panel discussion and pitches from nine agricultural companies – mostly biotechnology startups from North Carolina and five other states. The outcome, however, was an eclectic, electric celebration of amazing opportunity and futuristic realities. All in a day’s work for a burgeoning global business sector centered right here, in and around this Center.

The attendees came from as far away as Portugal and Israel, and from around the U.S.: California, Virginia, Pennsylvania, New York, New Jersey, Massachusetts, Kentucky and Georgia.

 

 

And when the end-of-day networking social got sociable with refreshments provided by Showcase sponsors, there was no doubt that deals would be done and business would be conducted as a result of this experience.

This year, for the first time, those same sponsors made it possible to award cash prizes to the top two company pitches. Almost like the popular TV investotainment show Shark Tank.

This show, however, had a real shark angle. The $10,000 top prize winner was SynShark, of Cornelius, N.C. and College Station, Texas. SynShark Executive Director Jason Ornstein flew in from his home in London to explain to potential investors how the company is developing a sustainable way to produce squalene, a substance currently harvested from shark livers for use in the pharmaceutical and cosmetics markets.

The company is developing a way to produce a synthetic squalene in tobacco plants, easing the catch pressure on sharks. And easing the income pressure on farmers in North Carolina and environs.

ConidioTec, of State College, Penn., won the $2,500 second-place finish. CEO Nina Jenkins described how the company is developing Aprehend, a new biopesticide for control and prevention of bedbugs. The product uses Beauveria bassiana, a fungus that is natural and harmless to humans and has previously been used to control horticultural and agricultural pests. ConidioTec’s patent-pending technology enables both prevention and complete eradication of bedbugs after a single application.

Paul Ulanch, Ph.D., executive director of the NCBiotech Biotechnology Crop Commercialization Center, got a round of applause from the audience when he presented the checks and thanked the sponsors who made the extra fillips possible: Alexandria Real Estate Equities, Smith Anderson, the David H. Murdock Research Institute, K&L Gates, and McDonnell Boehnen Hulbert and Berghoff LLP.

Each year has brought an expansion of the original idea, noted Ulanch. The first year included pitches only from North Carolina companies. “Last year we opened it to companies throughout the Southeast,” he said. “And this year we expanded the scope to the Eastern U.S., trying to find companies investors haven’t heard much of yet. We reached out to tech transfer offices at universities and other key sources for the top cutting-edge agricultural technologies in this part of the country. It seems most agree we succeeded.”

One successful recruit to the program was Ron Maron, Ph.D., business development director for the Israel-United States Binational Industrial Research & Development Foundation (BIRD). He brought "oohs' and "ahhs" from the investment-hungry auditorium as he explained why he'd flown halfway around the world to give away money.

Maron explained that his foundation is an endowment set up 40 years ago to to stimulate industrial R&D for the mutual benefit of the U.S. and Israel. It does that by providing some $25 million a year in non-diluting grants. He noted just a year ago BIRD saw a successful outcome from an investment in a joint research effort by Durham's Precision Biosciences and Israel's Danziger Innovations Ltd.

"This is a great opportunity for me," said Maron as he perused the audience.

The seven other presenting companies for 2015 included:

  • AgBiome, of Durham, is discovering and developing traits and biologicals for growers, with a history of product discovery and commercialization of its technology via partnerships with established industry brands, and will approach cash neutral in late 2015. In the first 19 months of lab operations the company has isolated, characterized, and sequenced over 24,000 novel bacterial strains, and discovered more than 800 potential insect-control genes.  
  • Aperiomics, of Ashburn, Va., is revolutionizing pathogen testing with a proprietary platform and is focused on pathogens of public and animal health importance.  Aperiomics’ Absolute*NGS Pathogen Detection Platform uses a combination of sophisticated next-generation DNA sequencing and advanced bioinformatics analysis to identify simultaneously all pathogens in any sample. 
  • Edison Agrosciences, of Durham, is using biotechnology to enable production of natural rubber in sunflowers. Natural rubber is essential for the manufacture of thousands of products including tires, and cannot be replaced with synthetics. Increasing demand will result in a shortfall of 25 percent by 2020. But current production methods and crops are economically and environmentally unsustainable.
  • Enzerna Biosciences, of Chapel Hill, is developing technologies to create sequence-specific RNA processing enzymes for any target of choice. 
  • NellOne Therapeutics, of Oak Ridge, Tenn., is using a novel protein to regenerate tissues to restore healthy, normal lives to horses with severe tissue injuries such as deep wounds and torn tendons and ligaments, especially in the limbs. These injuries would typically end the promising careers, and often the lives, of high-value performance horses because they are hard to heal, costly to treat and lead to scarring and permanent disability or death.
  • PhytoSynthetix, of Athens, Ga., is aiming to make indoor food production more efficient. Its technology is a “biophotonic” feedback system that allows LED grow lights to communicate with plants, increasing food production while reducing energy consumption.
  • Tyton BioEnergy Systems, of Danville, Va., is using a specialized tobacco technology platform to produce a variety of chemical building blocks for biofuels and other industrial and agricultural products. Tyton’s patented non-smoking tobacco outperforms corn, soy and other cellulosic feedstocks. President and co-founder Peter Majeranowski said the company will be restarting the former Clean Burn Fuels biorefinery in the Hoke County community of Raeford, N.C., this summer. It’s part of a strategy to make ethanol from its proprietary strain of regionally grown tobacco. That operation is expected to generate 79 jobs as Tyton BioEnergy invests $36 million through 2017 in Hoke, Wake and other surrounding counties. 

The Showcase started as another in a string of NCBiotech ideas to make the connections that nobody else was positioned to make. NCBiotech leadership elected to capitalize, on the cellular level, on the unique things that the state and the region could offer. That had to include agriculture, as a core contributor to the region's identity.

The Showcase diversity reinforces the fact that the lines between ag biotech and biopharma are getting more fuzzy by the day. Biopharmaceuticals and ag bio are, bottom line, about tweaking cells and their environs. And it's why NCBiotech is so invested in the whole toolbox, and supportive of those who see the big picture through wide lenses.

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