The path of a tiny Texas startup to the multi-billion dollar chemicals market crosses through the tobacco fields of North Carolina. If it’s successful, the company’s technology could also save the lives of millions of sharks.
That’s the circuitous course charted by College Station, TX-based SynShark, a spinout from Texas A&M University. SynShark has developed a way to biologically manufacture the chemical squalene, which is used in pharmaceuticals and cosmetics production.
Most commercially available squalene now comes from shark livers, explained Jason Ornstein, executive director of SynShark. While squalene can also be produced from olives, olives present environmental challenges due to the large amount of waste generated in their production. Making squalene in genetically modified tobacco plants would give the pharma and cosmetic industries an environmentally sustainable alternative to a practice that kills an estimated 3 million sharks each year, Ornstein said.
Squalene was not SynShark’s first target. The company, whose technology is based on Texas A&M biofuels research that was awarded $5 million in government funding from the Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy, was initially pursuing a bio-based jet fuel. But Ornstein said the company found a ready market in chemicals. SynShark is doing some of its work in North Carolina because of the experience the state’s farmers have with tobacco plants. Ornstein said the startup plans to plant its first test crop this summer in Greensboro, NC.
SynShark took the prize for best presentation in the Ag Biotech Entrepreneurial Showcase, an annual event hosted Tuesday by the North Carolina Biotechnology Center. A total of nine companies from six states presented. SynShark’s first place award comes with a $10,000 prize.
The $2,500 second place award went to State College, PA-based ConidioTec, a spinout from Pennsylvania State University. ConidioTec has developed a bio-pesticide that attacks the biology of the bed bug. CEO Nina Jenkins said the product, which uses fungus that does not harm humans, gets stuck on the bedbugs’ feet and is carried back to the cracks and crevices where the bugs hide. While a number of bedbug-killing products have been commercialized, Jenkins says they are not for home use. ConidioTec aims to commercialize a pesticide that’s safe to use in homes, which the company would sell to exterminators. Jenkins says the hotel industry has also expressed interest in the product.
Here is a look at the other presenting companies:
—AgBiome. The Research Triangle Park, NC, company’s proprietary platform technology discovers microbes in the soil that have beneficial effects on plants. The company can test thousands of microbes and select those with the best activity. To date, AgBiome has sequenced more than 25,000 microbes. The company, which last year raised $17.5 million in a Series A round, has forged partnerships to discover microbes for companies such as Syngenta (NYSE: SYT). But Kelly Smith, AgBiome’s director of microbials development, said the company could also take its own products to market.
—Aperiomics. Ashburn, VA-based Aperiomics has a technology for pathogen detection in animals. The company’s next-generation sequencing and advanced bioinformatics analysis can identify all pathogens in a sample, said Eduardo Castro-Naller, Aperiomics’s chief scientific officer and co-founder. Aperiomics’s first customer is in aquaculture; the company is also pursuing business in poultry and cattle.
—Edison Agrosciences. Sunflowers naturally produce small amounts of rubber. Chapel Hill, NC-based Edison Agrosciences is developing a way to increase that natural rubber production so that it could be used for commercial use. Unlike rubber trees, which grow in tropical climates, sunflowers can be grown in variety of climates, CEO Tom Christensen said. Sunflowers also offer the advantage of growing faster than rubber trees, which means that the rubber can be extracted for production sooner.
—Enzerna Biosciences. Chapel Hill, NC-based Enzerna Biosciences has licensed technology from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill that the company is developing into a way to modulate RNA without permanently altering the target gene. The technology could have applications in controlling photosynthesis or regulating yield, said Joseph Ruiz, Enzerna’s president.
—NellOne Therapeutics. Wounds in horses can be difficult and expensive to treat. Oak Ridge, TN-based NellOne Therapeutics is developing a treatment that uses a protein to promote tissue regeneration. This NELL1 protein would be applied with a biodegradable scaffold or dressing that has already been approved by the FDA, explained Cymbeline Culiat, the company’s co-founder and chief scientific officer. NellOne will first target the horse market, expanding later to companion animals. While the veterinary market is the company’s fastest path to the market the technology could also eventually find applications treating humans, Culiat said.
—PhytoSynthetix. Lighting is the most expensive part of indoor food production, said Erico Mattos, chief technical officer for PhytoSynthetix. The Athens, GA-based company has developed an LED lighting system that offers better energy efficiency compared to conventional lighting systems. Beyond energy savings, the company has also developed a biofeedback system that Mattos said “can communicate with the plants” to determine the optimal amount of light to provide. The company plans to launch its LED light in the third quarter; the biofeedback system could become available in 2016.
—Tyton BioEnergy Systems. Danville, VA-based Tyton has a tobacco platform technology that the company said can produce chemical building blocks with applications in industrial products and agricultural products. The company’s first commercial target is biofuels production. The company is partnered with Tyton Biofuels, which is expected to begin ethanol production in Raeford, NC, this summer.