Two Triangle Ag Tech Startups Among Finalists for $100K Alexandria Prize
Two of the seven Alexandria LaunchLab $100,000 AgTech Innovation Prize finalists, TreeCo and TerMir, are based in the Triangle. Both are developing disruptive and needed agricultural technologies
Alexandria Real Estate Equities Inc. (NYSE:ARE), an S&P 500 urban office REIT, is the pioneering owner, operator and developer. It is focused on collaborative life science, technology and ag tech campuses in AAA innovation cluster locations. Its Research Triangle facility is in Durham.
The $100,000 prize consists of a $75,000 cash award and a $25,000 membership to Alexandria LaunchLabs – AgTech, a platform accelerating early stage ag tech company growth.
The prize will be awarded to one of the finalists following a closed-door, five-minute virtual pitch event next Tuesday, May 12. A judging panel comprising seasoned investors and industry experts will select the winner based on the quality and differentiation of the company’s technology, management team, and business plan, among other criteria.
TreeCo is an R&D engine for the forest industry that combines tree genetic insights with the power of CRISPR. TreeCo intellectual property is affiliated with North Carolina State University researchers Rodolphe Barrangou and Jack Wang, the NC State assistant professor of food science and CRISPR-Cas9 expert and the senior member of the forestry biotech group.
CEO Darren Dasburg explains that pulp trees have about 25 traits that CRISPER can knock out. “TreeCo was founded to bring enhanced traits to trees around the world.”
Initially, he said, the company is focusing on technology for pulp and paper companies. It’s a relatively consolidated industry with about 150 facilities globally across some 30-plus companies.
Using a CRISPER gene knockout technique, Dasburg said, the company could slash the lignin content of trees used to make paper. Lignin is an organic substance binding the cells and fibers of wood. Reducing lignin from 30% to 20% in trees used to make pulp paper and hygienic paper would reduce the strength of the trees, making them easier to break up in the digester stage.
The pulp and paper industry tried classic breeding without much success due to the long breeding periods.
“We can put them in a better position in a year,” Dasburg said. “We’ve done it in the lab. We’re endeavoring to get it out in industry forests.” This can make a $70 million difference to each large company per year.”
So far TreeCo has not sought outside funding, preferring, Dasburg said, “the wisdom of the forest - to take a calm pace.”
The company is working with a client with whom it hopes to validate the technology over a three-year period. Regarding the Alexandria prize, Dasburg said, “We’re honored to get in and hope to make a good show and do some good things with that money.”
TerMir tackling plant bacteria
TerMir has a platform for developing anti-bacterial treatments for plants. President and CTO Chad Brommer, Ph.D, said it is focused on threats such as citrus greening, which is devasting the Florida orange juice industry.
Unlike in the medical science industry, he said, “There hasn’t been any large push to develop anti-bacterial treatments for plants. Current treatments, such as copper, have drawbacks, such as building up in the soil.” Yet, he added, “Everything you get in the produce store aisle, every one of those plants has a bacteria problem.”
The company plans to tackle the citrus greening problem first. A Washington Post article in November 2019 reported that “Ghost groves abandoned by growers are scattered across the state (Florida).”
According to the Post, 90% of the state’s groves are infected by a bacterium called huang long bing. The bacterium often prevents raw green fruit from ripening, a symptom called citrus greening. In 2004 Florida had 7,000 growers, but 5,000 have dropped out. Two-thirds of the factories that process the fruit into juice have shut down.
Xyella fastidiosa, a bacterium originally found in America on grapes, is killing olive trees in Italy and Spain and it takes years to regrow them. “We did a research trial in Italy with excellent results,” Brommer said.
“The products we develop are from known chemistry and natural sources such as plant or microbial extracts.”
Brommer praised the Alexandria LaunchLab facility, pointing out that ag tech firms large and small share its offices, lab spaces, greenhouses, and amenities.