Agricultural-focused startups are blossoming in the Triangle
North Carolina, and the Triangle in particular, has quietly blossomed into a hotbed of startups that are applying cutting-edge technology to agriculture.
The state is home to at least 50 entrepreneurial agricultural technology companies, with 28 of those companies based in the Triangle, according to data compiled by the nonprofit Council for Entrepreneurial Development.
“I think when people think about ag biotech and ag biotech startups, they think about really three geographies: here in North Carolina, St. Louis, Mo., and UC-Davis near Sacramento, Calif.,” said Scott Johnson, vice president of agricultural biotechnology at the state-funded N.C. Biotechnology Center.
Comparing the size of these startup clusters, Johnson added, is problematic “because everybody talks about ag biotech with a little bit different definition.”
Indeed, CED talks about ag tech companies while the Biotech Center focuses on ag biotech companies, which it defines as applying the tools of biotechnology “to crops, livestock, forestry and marine life to produce more food, fuels, fiber and goods.”
Whichever way you cut it, the Triangle’s crop of entrepreneurial companies in this sector runs the gamut from A to Z – AgBiome to Zoion Pharma.
AgBiome, which has raised more than $50 million from investors, has 44 full-time and 14 part-time employees and recently submitted an application to market its first product – a natural, or biological, fungicide that could be used by organic farmers. Zoion Pharma is a virtual company nurtured by $80,000 in Biotech Center loans that is developing a treatment for canine dry eye and is seeking a corporate partner.
These homegrown companies complement industry giants such as BASF, Bayer CropScience and Syngenta that each have hundreds of employees in the Triangle.
Altogether, according to the Biotech Center, more than 80 ag biotech companies of all sizes employ more than 8,700 workers across the state, making North Carolina “the global hub of ag biotech.” In 2010, the Biotech Center launched an initiative to facilitate the growth of the ag biotech sector which, it notes, combines “the state’s two largest industries – agriculture and biotechnology.”
The local presence of these ag biotech giants, as well as smaller but still significant industry players, has made the Triangle a fertile ground for startups. So has the ability to collaborate with research universities Duke, N.C. State and UNC-Chapel Hill.
“This is indisputably the world center for agricultural biotechnology,” said Eric Ward, co-CEO of AgBiome. “Our business development activities in a lot of cases can involve getting in the car and driving 5 miles instead of flying to another country.”
AgBiome has forged five partnerships with companies that have a local presence, Ward said.
The startups strengthen the Triangle’s magnetic pull for biotech talent, said Jim Blome, CEO of Bayer CropScience, which has nearly 900 employees in the Triangle.
“Our overall opinion is, we absolutely love it,” Blome said. “The bigger the magnet, the stronger the pull.”
Blome also noted that Bayer CropScience also keeps a close eye on startups that could enhance its efforts to be innovative. In 2009, it acquired Athenix, a Research Triangle Park-based company that genetically engineered corn and soybeans to resist bugs and chemicals, for $365 million.
The Triangle doesn’t offer everything these entrepreneurial companies need to grow, however. As is the case with other startups, they generally have to look outside the region to find outside investors to fund their research and help commercialize their products.
And the plant science startups view the lack of greenhouse space available for lease as a handicap. “It’s a desperate need if North Carolina and RTP want to remain relevant in the ag biotech startup scene,” said Matthew Crisp, CEO of Benson Hill Biosystems, which is co-located in St. Louis and RTP.
Jay Bigelow, director of entrepreneurship at CED, said he was surprised when the organization did a deep dive into its data a few months ago and found out just how many entrepreneurial companies locally and across the state fall into the ag tech category.
Those companies include startups formed just in the past few years as well as companies that have existed for a decade or more.