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Agtech Sprouts From North Carolina’s Fertile Ground: A Company Map

Xconomy Raleigh-Durham — 

Tobacco is still king in North Carolina, the top crop in the nation’s largest tobacco-producing state. But these days, North Carolina tobacco means more than cigarettes.

Medicago’s facility in Durham, NC, for example, manufactures vaccines from tobacco plants. And a startup called SynShark has set up a Cornelius, NC, research site where it is testing how well engineered tobacco plants can manufacture the chemical squalene, an ingredient in cosmetics and pharmaceuticals.

Agriculture is the biggest industry in North Carolina, representing $84 billion in annual business, according to the state’s Department of Agriculture. Now agtech and agbio companies represent a fast-growing segment of an industry that is about more than just food production.

The North Carolina Biotechnology Center counts more than 80 agbio companies of various sizes employing approximately 8,900 people in the state. To show the breadth of agricultural technology in North Carolina, Xconomy mapped out a subset of companies in this sector throughout the state. We also included a table (below) to show some key figures about these companies. We didn’t map all of the agtech companies from the Biotech Center’s directory, which includes some industry service providers, biofuel companies, and others. Instead of trying to be comprehensive, we chose companies with the goal of being representative of the agtech efforts underway in the state.

Our subjective criteria led us to select 32 companies that we believe showcase a wide range of sizes, ages, focus areas, and geographies. The list includes some well-known names, as well as emerging young companies that are still under the radar.

Several multinational companies maintain major agbio operations in North Carolina—BASF (FWB: BAS), Bayer (FWB: BAYN), and Syngenta (NYSE: SYT) have global or North American headquarters in the state. A Novozymes (NASDAQ OMX: NZYM) site outside Research Triangle Park is working in partnership with Monsanto (NYSE: MON) to develop and commercialize beneficial microbes intended to improve crop yields.

Our list includes many startups as well. Since 2010, at least 26 agbio companies have launched in or relocated to the Tar Heel State, according to the Biotech Center. Newcomers to North Carolina’s agbio scene include RTP-based AgBiome; Durham-based Precision BioSciences; and Alrgn Bio, based in Greensboro. The startup count is poised to grow with the addition this year of AgTech Accelerator, a new venture-backed program in RTP that aims to find promising early-stage agricultural technologies and build companies around them.

The Research Triangle is home to most of the state’s agbio activity, but agtech’s footprint spans the entire state. Syngenta, for example, operates a crop protection regional headquarters in Greensboro, in addition to its biotechnology site in RTP. In Davidson, NC, SoyMeds is researching therapeutics developed from soybean seeds. Agbio research extends as far west as the Appalachian Mountains, where Black Mountain-based startup Phytonix is researching how to use cyanobacteria to manufacture chemicals.

Take a look at some of the companies forming North Carolina’s agbio cluster in our map and table. If there are companies you think we might have missed, let me know at fvinluan@xconomy.com.

Company Founded Agtech focus
Advanced Animal Diagnostics 2001 Diagnostic devices for animals
Alrgn Bio 2014 Enzymatic technology for removing peanut allergens
AgBiome 2013 Agricultural microbial discovery and development
Agile Sciences 2007 Crop antimicrobial derived from sea sponge
Applied LifeSciences & Systems 2015 Vaccine delivery technology for poultry
Arbiom 2015 Bio-based chemicals and materials
BASF 1998 Crop protection and plant science
Bayer 1863 Crop protection and pest control
Benanova 2013 Nanoparticle technology for pesticides
Benson Hill BioSystems 2012 “Cloud biology” studying plant genomics
BioResource International 1999 Animal feed additive derived from enzymes
EntoGenetics 2007 Silk from engineered silkworms
Enzerna Biosciences 2014 RNA technology to regulate photosynthesis, yield
Galaxy Diagnostics 2007 Infectious disease diagnostics for veterinary medicine
Medicago 1999 Vaccine production from tobacco plants
Mycorrhiza Biotech 2006 Mycorrhiza for agricultural production
Mycosynthetix 2001 Fungi research for medical and agricultural applications
NanoVector 2002 Drug delivery via plant virus nanoparticle
Novozymes BioAg 2000 Agricultural microbial discovery and development
Phytonix 2009 Chemical production from engineered cyanobacteria
Piedmont Animal Health 2001 Animal health arm of Piedmont Pharmaceuticals
Plant Health Care 1995 Technology to activate plants’ innate growth, defense mechanisms
Precision BioSciences 2012 Gene-editing technology for medical, plant applications
SePRO 1993 Aquatics and horticulture R&D site for Indiana-based SePRO
SoyMeds 2005 Therapeutics from soybeans
Sun Dance Genetics 1988 Corn genetics
Syngenta 2000 Crop protection, crop research
Synshark 2013 Chemical production from tobacco plants
Trana Discovery 2000 Anti-infective discovery technology for crops
TyraTech 2004 Bio-pesticides
Verdesian Life Sciences 2012 Biological treatments, inoculants for agriculture
Zoetis 1985 Poultry vaccination tech (Embrex acquisition)

Photo courtesy of Flickr user Mangrove Mike via a Creative Commons license.