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NC State Presses For $180M Plant Sciences Plan with Ag Industry

Xconomy Raleigh-Durham — 

[Corrected 1/13/15, 9:12 a.m. See below] Agriculture is a $78 billion annual business in North Carolina, making it far and away the state’s largest industry. Now North Carolina State University is working on a $180 million plan that backers hope will grow that industry into a $100 billion market.

To make that math work, the university is pursuing what it calls the Plant Sciences Initiative, a plan to bring academia and industry together in a new research facility where scientists can tackle drought tolerance, crop yield, and other major agricultural issues. Steven Lommel, associate dean of research for the university’s College of Agriculture and Life Sciences (CALS), says the university is particularly suited to this plan because of the state’s agricultural diversity as well as NC State’s proximity to the global agbio R&D operations for Bayer CropScience, Syngenta (NYSE: SYT), and BASF Plant Science, in nearby Research Triangle Park. (See in-depth Q&A with Lommel below.)

The university has been preparing to present its case to state officials, who would need to approve funding for the endeavor. The legislature last year authorized $350,000 for a study that would outline the need for, and the economic impact of, the Plant Sciences Initiative. [An earlier version of this story used an incorrect figure for the legislative funding. We regret the error.] The university plans to present its report to the legislature on January 12, timed with the start of the legislative session.

The plans come at a key time for the agricultural biotech industry as companies such as Novozymes (NASDAQ OMX: NZYM) and Monsanto (NYSE: MON) bolster R&D in agricultural microbials, among other areas. But it also comes during austere times for state government, whose spending cuts have not spared the North Carolina Biotechnology Center and the Biofuels Center of North Carolina. Cuts ultimately shuttered the Biofuels Center in 2013, but spared a now slimmer Biotech Center, which last fall launched an initiative to boost its own agbio support.

Universities in other states have pursued ways to spark interdisciplinary collaborations with industry; Lommel points to Bio-X at Stanford and Purdue University’s Discovery Park, as examples that NC State has studied. Those initiatives conduct research in a range of areas including healthcare, energy, and information technology. While NC State’s initiative is intended to be interdisciplinary, it will focus on plant science. But food crops are not the only thing on NC State’s plate. Lommel notes that technology for plant-based pharmaceutical production enables Medicago, which has a manufacturing facility just outside of RTP, to produce a flu vaccine and for San Diego, CA-based Mapp Biopharmaceutical to make its Ebola drug, Zmapp.

The university’s new plant sciences facility will be constructed next to the existing Biomanufacturing Training and Education Center, which Lommel says will add plant-based pharmaceutical manufacturing under the Plant Sciences Initiative. Plant science startups operating from the university’s new building could test plant-based pharma production at the adjacent BTEC site.

To plan the initiative, NC State officials spoke with agbio and seed companies, venture capitalists, faculty at other universities, and research institutes around the world for perspective on plant science research and collaborations. Lommel says the Plant Sciences Initiative aims to go further than the research work of institutes.

“Their deliverable is publishing high-quality papers,” he says. “That is a deliverable for us, but we want to actually do something innovative. And that’s why we think corporate partners will help us.”

As the university put finishing touches on its report to the legislature, Lommel sat down with Xconomy to explain the Plant Sciences Initiative. The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Xconomy: Where did the idea for the Plant Sciences Initiative come from?

Steven LommelSteven Lommel: It actually came from a strategic planning process. We recognized that RTP is a huge hub for biosciences R&D with three of the six larger plant and seed biotech companies. We have a really dynamic state geography and climate. We have mountains and oceans. We can have a drought and a flood in the same day in different parts of the state. We can stress plants for freezing, cold tolerance, as well as heat and drought at the same time. Also, North Carolina is very much a specialty crop state. We’re very diverse. It really came together that we have a number of assets and opportunities, that a lot of other states don’t have, to take plant science into the future by re-envisioning … Next Page »

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