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AgBio Edges Pharma and Other Takeaways on the RTP Biotech Scene

Xconomy Raleigh-Durham — 

When North Carolina State University crop science professor Wesley Everman was in graduate school more than a decade ago, aerial images of crops were available intermittently. Planes didn’t fly often and when they did, the images they provided were just a snapshot in time.

These days, Everman gets crop image data as needed and in greater resolution. He flies unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV) over North Carolina test crops. In addition to capturing images for the day of the flight, software tracks and analyzes the data from all previous flights, which allows researchers to see how crops change over time.

“In the dynamic, biological world, that’s important—things change day to day,” Everman says. “It’s not just a random snapshot on a random day when you could fly.”

Everman spoke this week at the Ag Biotech Professional Forum, a regular gathering hosted by the North Carolina Biotechnology Center that touches on various topics affecting the agriculture industry. Wednesday’s forum discussed how farmers and agbio companies are using sensing and monitoring capabilities to improve their work. Also speaking at the forum were Todd DeZwaan, Monsanto’s (NYSE: MON) automated greenhouse strategy lead for the company’s site in Research Triangle Park, NC; and Juan Jimenez, an account executive at Raleigh, NC-based aerial drone company PrecisionHawk USA.

The Biotech Center event highlighted how farmers and agbio companies are using different technologies to develop and grow different plant varieties. But it also revealed how the ag biotech industry in the Research Triangle region has evolved over the years. Here are my takeaways on what these changes mean for agriculture, and what they say about the evolving RTP biotech scene:

Technologies are converging. Though Monsanto is based in Missouri, a 28,000-square foot automated greenhouse in North Carolina is a key part of the company’s R&D. Monsanto’s RTP greenhouse can subject plants to different growing conditions. By identifying which plants work best early on, Monsanto can make quicker decisions about which products to pursue, DeZwaan says.

The greenhouse represents a convergence of technologies. No human hands touch the plants in the fully automated structure, which moves the plants through each section of the greenhouse via a series of conveyer belts. RFID chips on each plant allow the system to track each plant individually. Sensors capture characteristics of a plant, such as chlorophyll content in the leaves and how efficiently a plant is using water. Big ag is heavily invested in big data. Plant data are collected over time, and computers crunch the data to give researchers insights about how plants perform in challenging environments.

Depending on what Monsanto wants to evaluate, the company configures the greenhouse to perform different tests. For example, Monsanto ran 55 different corn hybrids through the greenhouse under drought conditions to identify which hybrids are tolerant to drought. Hybrids found to be too sensitive to drought were removed from further testing, allowing the company to focus on the most promising varieties of drought-tolerant corn. The automated greenhouse was built to evaluate corn, soy, and cotton. But DeZwaan says the algorithms the company developed can be expanded to other species with little modification.

Precision agriculture is being made more precise. Many farmers employ technology with precision agriculture in mind. Sensors can detect plant disease or pest infestations, which lets farmers know where to intervene. Using aerial drones for “crop scouting” could make the process even more precise. Rather than walking through the crops, an aerial drone can more quickly cover a field and help a farmer determine where an application, such as a pesticide, is most needed. That saves on the time, expense, and environmental impacts of spraying. “If you don’t have to spray the whole field, why bother spraying the whole field?” Everman says. Using a drone is “more environmentally sound, and usually more effective as well.”

Tech advances, regulations lag. Crop imaging technology has come a long way. The spatial resolution for satellites used to be 40 square meters, Everman says. Technology advances have improved satellite imaging resolution to 1 square meter. Imaging from planes can provide resolution down to half of a square meter. Jimenez says the high-resolution sensors on PrecisionHawk’s UAVs are so sensitive that they can provide imaging resolution down to 1 square centimeter—enough to view leaves on a plant.

Imaging technology that allows farmers to track plants down to individual leaves can make precision agriculture even more precise. But Federal Aviation Administration rules currently restrict how UAVs can be used. For one, operators must be licensed pilots, a rule that keeps many farmers from operating drones themselves, Jimenez says. Everman is able to fly drones over North Carolina crops because his work is considered research, which the FAA allows. PrecisionHawk is working with the FAA to change the rules to expand how the technology can be used in agriculture. Jimenez, who is a licensed pilot, expects that UAV regulations will change in other countries before they change in the United States. He says new FAA regulations on UAVs will come as the agriculture industry puts pressure on regulators.

Agbio ascending over pharma. At the reception following the forum, a Triangle life sciences veteran who trained as a chemist and worked in medical device companies gestured to the more than 120 people packing a Biotech Center room and said to me, “This reminds me of the ’90s.” Twenty years ago, he explained, pharma was the dominant player in RTP, and it was pharma industry events that drew large crowds. But in recent years, pharma’s RTP presence appears to be shrinking. Layoffs at GlaxoSmithKline (NYSE: GSK) and more recently, Biogen (NASDAQ: BIIB), have whittled away the local workforce.

Meanwhile, agbio companies such as Bayer CropScience, BASF Plant Science, and Syngenta (NYSE: SYT) are expanding their RTP footprints (though Monsanto is in the midst of a restructuring that is cutting some RTP jobs). So why did a life sciences veteran who spent his career working in medical devices and diagnostics attend an agbio event? He told me that he’s looking to make a move. The large companies investing in R&D seem to be in agbio, he said. In his view, agricultural biotechnology has surpassed pharma as the industry face of RTP.

 Photo courtesy of Flickr user fishhawk under a Creative Commons license.