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Ag Secretary Perdue Hears Startups Call for More Research Support

Xconomy Raleigh-Durham — 

U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue’s visit to North Carolina this week put him on stage among entrepreneurs and academics that his office chose for the occasion, and they used the opportunity to bend his ear.

Joy Parr Drach, a farmer who is also CEO of Advanced Animal Diagnostics, told him about the challenges facing her agtech startup in Research Triangle Park, NC. She explained that her company has developed diagnostic technology that helps reduce antibiotics use—an outcome that both consumers and farmers want. Though AAD has commercialized a test for dairy cows, and landed a partnership with a global animal health company, Drach said technology for chickens and pigs remains undeveloped because the startup can’t find funding. What can be done to bring such innovations to the market faster, she asked Perdue.

Perdue, a veterinarian and former Georgia governor, listened to Drach, who was seated next to him on stage in a North Carolina State University auditorium.

“So you want to talk about money,” Perdue said with a smile, drawing audience laughter. “Let’s go to the next panel.”

The exchange between Perdue and Drach wasn’t the only time the topic of startup funding was broached during Perdue’s visit Thursday. But it’s an example of the comments he’s been getting in “listening sessions” he’s been holding throughout the country on behalf of the Rural Prosperity Task Force, an advisory body created to make policy recommendations to boost the economy in rural America. As chair of the task force, Perdue said his goal is to hear what is happening throughout the country and bring to President Trump actionable recommendations that will make agriculture thrive in the future.

During one session in Charleston, WV, late last month, participants expressed concern about topics such as immigration reform. Some worried about the shortage of farm labor and asked Perdue for policy changes that would include migrant and seasonal workers, according to the Charleston Gazette. The flavor of the North Carolina discussion was different, and Perdue said he expected it would be, noting the hundreds of life science companies in the Research Triangle, many of them focused on agriculture. The North Carolina Biotechnology Center lists more than 100 companies in the state working in agricultural biotechnology.

Perdue told the invited audience that President Trump understands what agriculture means to the economy and his administration is committed to removing barriers holding the sector back. To that end, Perdue said the U.S. Department of Agriculture is submitting 250 deregulatory items for government officials to consider to “help liberate some of the things you’re doing.”

But regulation did not appear to be a major concern, at least not to the panelists the USDA selected to appear alongside Perdue. Rodolphe Barrangou, an NC State food science professor whose research focuses on CRISPR gene editing, said he is actually pleased with how the USDA regulates genome editing. As an example, he noted the agency’s decision last year that it would not regulate button mushrooms genetically engineered to resist browning. The agency has been communicating in a more vocal and visible manner, he said.

Eric Ward, co-CEO of AgBiome, said the USDA has done a good job regulating his RTP company’s agricultural microbes, though he added that that doesn’t mean there isn’t room for improvement. Big companies are risk averse, so they tend to do more than what regulators ask them to do, said Ward, whose experience includes posts at large companies such as Ciba-Geigy and Novartis (NYSE: NVS). But for startups, the goal is … Next Page »

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