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

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new technology, new companies, new startups. They want to see a mechanism in place to nurture and drive startups, and have faculty where that’s part of their ethos. They want to be part of seeing those companies birth and develop, and maybe acquire them or be involved in partnerships.

X: As far as a partnership, what would that relationship look like?

SL: Again, most of the work will be precompetitive. We’re hoping to take a leadership role in one of the precompetitive things. There’s a well-oiled mechanism to do that through a National Science Foundation CRC [Collaborative Research in Chemistry], these are university/industry consortia. They’re sort of designed to look at the precompetitive space. The microbiome is a good example. There’s just a lot of basic knowledge that needs to be collected that will be of value to everybody. The companies need it as a platform, or as groundwork to be able to solve problems. Things like surveying all the microbes, doing genomic analysis, doing life cycle analysis, finding out where they are in the soil. It’s all just basic research that companies really want to have. And it’s something that federal agencies really don’t do that well.

X: What kinds of capabilities would this facility give you that you don’t have now?

SL: There’s going to be facilities for modern imaging and modern instrumentation. The whole top of the building is going to be glasshouses. It’s going to be both BSL-2 [Biosafety Level 2] containment and normal glasshouses, those are very much needed here. And BSL-2 is for transgenic work. There’s going to be growth chambers. There will be corporate suites. It’s really the design of the building that’s different, it’s not so much what’s in it. It’s going to be designed with all the latest architectural themes to drive big groups to work together.

We’re going to be upgrading BTEC [Biomanufacturing Training and Education Center] to do more plant work. BTEC has a couple of roles, one is a scale-up pharmaceutical plant for growing biologics in yeast and bacteria. But it also does a lot of training, cGMP [current good manufacturing practice] training. A huge interest of BTEC statewide has been to expand its portfolio of biologics to grow new plants. Medicago makes flu vaccine in plants; Zmapp, the Ebola serum, is also grown in plants. There’s a lot of opportunity to move forward in that kind of value-added plant space. So with the specialty BSL-2 greenhouses, BTEC being nearby, we can now start moving the research on developing biologics in pharmaceuticals and plants. It would be a very unique facility worldwide, to be able to do that.

X: Is that research capability something industry has sought?

SL: Yes, in fact, I worked with a couple of the local industries 10 years ago to create a plant component for BTEC. Some of them were interested, some were not. Some of them are much more interested in growing value-added in biologics and plants.

I don’t want to ignore the entrepreneurial aspect of it, too. Having that facility, having the plant sciences building with BSL-2 greenhouses and all those facilities attached to BTEC, provides a public manufacturing facility for small startups. Again, most of these technologies are really not being done by the large companies. Mapp Bio and Medicago started as small startups. What it really does is provide this infrastructure for small startups to really open the door to do all kinds of greater plant-based products.

X: You’ve mentioned startups. How big a role will startups play in this initiative?

SL: The companies really feel that to get a value-added partnership with us they really want to create an environment, in the RTP area, to drive biotech startups.

X: These would be NC State startups?

SL: We haven’t fully fleshed that out yet. We hope there will be startup incubator labs for people. We can also work with RTP to graduate them out of these spaces and into intermediate spaces. And companies can seed them early on as their need develops. They’ll have a presence in the building as well. We’re trying to partner and find strategic partners with venture capital folks, and we’ll try to create an ecosystem to drive that.

X: Could startups from outside of NC State find a place here?

SL: We’re hoping the bulk of them will come out of NC State research and NC State partnerships, but we’ll probably work on ways to make it agnostic so that other small startups from other universities could be part of the ecosystem.

X: What will this initiative cost, and where is the money going to come from? … Next Page »

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