Ag event showcases biotech ideas

Oct. 10, 2013 @ 08:53 PM

A company that’s identified a fungus that officials believe could be used as a “natural” means to help crop farmers kill weeds.
A start-up that’s looking to manipulate plant genetics to help crops more efficiently make fuel from sunlight, water and carbon dioxide.
A business that wants to increase sales for “lab in a box” designed to detect infections in dairy cows more quickly.
Triangle entrepreneurs are working to develop those and other ideas into new or bigger companies. They made pitches on Thursday at a showcase of the state’s agricultural biotechnology sector.
The event was hosted by the N.C. Biotechnology Center, a state-funded nonprofit that provides funding to new businesses or scientists to help grow the sector in the state.
“North Carolina is certainly a hotbed of innovation in the ag space,” said Amanda Cashin, vice president of life sciences for Alexandria Real Estate Equities, who was the master of ceremonies at Thursday’s showcase.
The event included pitches by entrepreneurs starting or building companies in the agricultural biotechnology sector and panel discussions, including one focused on the process of spinning out ideas from universities.
Daniel Baden, the director of the Center for Marine Science at the University of North Carolina-Wilmington said commercialization’s one of the “few places to go” for funding support, as he said the federal government is reducing support for university research and as grants from philanthropic groups has declined.
And in response to a question about whether there are incentives for university professors and staff members to found and lead start-ups, Kelly Sexton, the director of the N.C. State University Office of Technology Transfer, said that in some cases, department heads dissuade non-tenured professors from pursuing start-ups until they achieve tenure.
Sexton’s office is responsible for identifying and bringing to market technology developed out of research at N.C. State. The office has spun out more than 100 start-ups she said, and has made about 400 products available to consumers.
Faculty at the university largely understand the value of commercialization and want to see ideas moved to the marketplace, Sexton said, and the school has awards to recognize staff that do. But she said depending on the department, it sometimes isn’t given much weight in the tenure process, and some department heads dissuade non-tenured professors from taking active roles as CEOs in start-ups.
One of the eight start-ups that gave pitches on Thursday was Advanced Animal Diagnostics, a company that launched its first product this month. Joy Parr Drach, president and CEO of the company, said the company’s product is a “lab in a box” that can help dairy farms detect an infection of the milk-producing glands, in dairy cows, while on-the-farm.
They’re raising $12 million to try to launch a second product and to expand their sales force to sell their first.
Another start-up showcased was Hillsborough-based Mycosynthetix, which is working to bring a weed-killing fungus to market to help farmers grow more crops. CEO Cedric Pearce said the company has identified the fungus and is looking to take it to field trials.
Pearce said they’re envisioning the product as selling to organic farmers as a “natural” pesticide.