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Innovation Across Clusters Drives Agricultural Biotechnology Growth in the Research Triangle Region


Research Triangle Region, N.C. – Rich, abundant agricultural lands and crops attracted the first agricultural biotechnology companies to the Research Triangle Region of North Carolina decades ago to serve farmers and develop better ways to grow crops.

Today, the region’s now-nationally renowned agricultural biotechnology cluster is catalyzing a new generation of companies and industries through cross-over technologies and interactions that are transforming medicine, manufacturing and the environment.

“We’re entering an interesting time as funding models for research and development projects are becoming more difficult to find,” says Sam Pellerito of PMP Public Affairs Consulting in Chapel Hill, a biotechnology advisor to the Research Triangle Regional Partnership (RTRP), which leads economic development for the 13-counties that comprise the Research Triangle Region.

“The agricultural biotechnology industry will need to morph with these changes and adapt to future trends,” Pellerito says. However, “because agricultural biotechnology is a strong, mature industry in this region, with some companies entering second and even third generations, there is a solid platform for supporting the changes happening in the industry.”

Innovation cross-over drives cluster growth

Agricultural biotechnology is the application of a broad range of biotechnology tools and methods to improve agriculture and its products, helping farmers throughout the world grow better crops through research and development and providing products and services to farmers.

More than 70 agricultural biotechnology-related companies employ more than 4,000 workers in North Carolina. With 49 of those companies located in the Research Triangle Region along with the headquarters of such industry giants as BASF, Bayer CropScience and Novozymes North America, it is one of the top five agricultural biotechnology regions in the nation.

Much of the industry’s traditional focus has been producing food, clothing and shelter at a lower cost with less environmental impact. But increasingly, Pellerito says, the industry is serving companies that use agricultural products for other purposes, such as pharmaceuticals, biofuels, renewable energy and the emerging field of green chemistry.

“We have other industries growing up around the agricultural biotechnology companies, which creates a synergy among clusters,” he says. “When you put all of that together, you unleash huge opportunities for spinout companies in all of these areas.”

Canadian pharmaceutical company Medicago, for instance, is using tobacco to develop flu vaccines. The company recently opened a 97,000-square-foot manufacturing facility in The Research Triangle Park. Besides creating up to 85 new jobs, the company is creating an important new use for one of North Carolina’s traditional crops. The new technology is one of only a few that can provide a solution to a pandemic.

Other cross-over companies include:

  • Agile Sciences Inc., a spinout from N.C. State University headquartered in Wake County, which uses compounds from sea sponges to help combat bacterial and fungal diseases. Its technology provides a highly effective method for treating crop diseases and has dental, medical and industrial applications.
  • Pinehurst Biologics, a division of AvjetBiotech Inc. in Moore County, pursuing genetically modified marine microalgae for use as an oil feedstock and as a new military and commercial aviation biofuel. More than 1,000 gallons of oil per day can be produced from algae, compared to 18 gallons per acre per day from corn. The U.S. Department of Defense will buy 410 million gallons of algae diesel this year.
  • Entegrion, a spinout from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, which specializes in technologies that support and preserve the function of the human vascular system. One of its products in development is a patch that stops bleeding on contact. Genetically modified bamboo is used to ensure consistency in the patch materials. Entegrion is located in The Research Triangle Park.
  • Novozymes North America, headquartered in Franklin County, which develops industrial enzymes, microorganisms and biopolymers that are improving performance in virtually every area of modern life, from removing trans fats in food to advancing renewable energy sources to improving industrial processes.

Cluster strength spells opportunity

The Research Triangle Region is a magnet for agricultural biotechnology companies in large part because of the region’s triple helix business model for innovation: a dense network of researchers who continuously innovate; entrepreneurs and investors who turn discoveries into products and companies; and governments that structure intellectual property, regulatory and tax systems to enable new companies and industries to thrive, Pellerito says.

In addition, the region’s research universities provide a continuing pool of talented workers and its top-ranked community college worker training programs offer related curricula and custom training programs for new and existing companies.

“The support of the community college system in North Carolina is one of the reasons Medicago decided to locate here,” Pellerito says. “Our community college will train Medicago’s people for them. This just doesn’t happen in most places.”

Cluster support also comes from the many industry associations located in the region, such as Soybean Growers Association, Cotton Inc. and Carolina Biodiesel Group.

“It’s an asset to be able to network and communicate with professionals from companies not only in your own industry but also with those from within the expanding field of potential collaborators,” Pellerito says. “This area is really worth coming to for agricultural biotechnology companies.”

The region’s support for innovation and entrepreneurship is important strength, says Gwyn Riddick, vice president of agricultural biotechnology for the North Carolina Biotechnology Center.

“Over the years, North Carolina has built an infrastructure that nurtures new ideas and innovations from just about anywhere – the universities and the industry giants – but also from the small companies just starting out,” Riddick says. “The new ideas eventually lead to new companies and new jobs, and there is a lot of entrepreneurial infrastructure to help grow those companies.”

A good example is the Biotechnology Center’s business development program, which provides low-interest loans to companies and grants to any university or nonprofit doing commercializable research. “For two decades, this was the only place in the United States with such a state-sponsored program,” Riddick says.

The state’s agricultural biotechnology cluster also benefits from the collaborative work of economic developers, chambers of commerce and state agencies that market the region and recruit new companies as well as nurture the region’s education assets and support for scientific innovation, he says.

Region well positioned for future growth

Expected defunding of the Farm Bill by the U.S. government will affect subsidies to farmers and present challenges for the industry that no one can predict, Pellerito says.

“This will affect how we go about expanding the agricultural biotechnology industry at some point,” says Pellerito. However, “we have such a strong infrastructure in this region and such a great diversity of crops and industries that we will be less affected than many other areas.”

North Carolina and the region are also taking strategic steps to continue supporting the growth of the cluster in the new, emerging areas of opportunity, he says. Among them:

  • N.C. Biotechnology Center’s AgBiotech Group is bringing together statewide partners in agriculture and biotechnology to implement strategies to grow the state’s agricultural economy to $100 billion by 2020.
  • N.C. Alexandria Agricultural Technical Center, a privately funded 50,000-square-foot agricultural technical facility planned for a 2012 opening in Durham, will feature cutting-edge individual greenhouse modules and innovative shared amenities to help develop green technologies.
  • Biofuels Center of North Carolina, located in the Research Triangle Region in Granville County, is leading the state’s effort to develop a biofuels industry to reduce its dependence on imported petroleum. The state intends to replace 10 percent of its liquid fuel imports with locally grown and produced biofuels by 2017.
  • North Carolina Community College System is focusing on agricultural biotechnology as part of its BioNetwork workforce training program, developed in response to industry needs.

For more information on the Research Triangle Region’s agricultural biotechnology cluster, companies and resources, visit http://www.researchtriangle.org/clusters/agriculture-biotechnology/ or contact Lee Anne Nance, senior vice president of strategic initiatives, at (919) 840-7372 ext. 15 or lnance@researchtriangle.org

The Research Triangle Regional Partnership leads economic development for the Research Triangle Region of North Carolina, home of The Research Triangle Park (RTP) and the 13 north-central N.C. counties of Chatham, Durham, Franklin, Granville, Harnett, Johnston, Lee, Moore, Orange, Person, Vance, Wake and Warren. For more information, visit www.researchtriangle.org or call (919) 840-7372.

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Contact: Lee Anne Nance, 919.840.7372 ext. 15