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 how we do plant science internally and finding new ways to partner and leverage these companies that are nearby.

X: Why does the university need a new facility to accomplish this?

SL: We have a number of buildings that house plant scientists. The newest one is [from the] ’60s. We’re excruciatingly outdated, to the point that people comment that it’s hard for us to do research. We’ve needed new facilities for a long time, but we’re not going to do what was done in the past. Typically we would build a building designed for one or two departments and house those folks in there, siloed. The plant sciences building we’re envisioning is an interdisciplinary building designed to take the right blend of people from all of our departments and disciplines, mix them with corporate and government folks, to create a fluid community to attack and go after big issues in plant sciences and agriculture.

X: This fluid model, is this where academia is moving?

SL: Yes. We’re kind of the tip of the spear. This is cathartic, but it’s also a major new way of thinking. Faculty in universities are usually very traditional, hierarchical, siloed. It’s great for doing cottage industry science, small science. One graduate student, one post doc, one gene. But it’s not good for doing systems science. The companies have been doing this for years. We really want to do a systems approach to plant sciences, not just have a plant pathologist but have economists, and physicists, and an application engineer, all working on these big global problems, like yield or drought.

X: Is there a particular model you’re looking at for this approach?

SL: There’s a number of models. Some work well, some are failures. The companies seem to do it better because they’re structured differently. Faculty are a little bit more independent operators. They get their own money, we don’t really tell them what to do, like you can in a company. We looked at Bio-X out at Stanford. They built a beautiful new building and put faculty in there. But that sort of failed; the faculty didn’t really move out when the projects were over with. We’ve looked at the nanotechnology science group at MIT. That was originally designed as a static model. They’ve done great things but it’s a static model. There’s a lot of energy for five, six, seven years. And now those collisions, those interactions, have sort of worn out.

One model that we’re definitely looking at is Discovery Park at Purdue. Purdue is a land grant [university] so ethos-wise and structure-wise, it’s like us. They have this mixed model where they put people in a building. They have a strong director, who has the authority to move people in and out. The secret there is that when they put people into the building, they don’t vacate their old space. What happens is, nature fills a vacuum. Space is a big issue in universities. If you move someone into the new building for five years you can’t repatriate them back to their old space. We have to find models to get people to move into a building and get the right ones to move back when their contribution to the project is over with.

X: Would this initiative duplicate anything industry is doing? How would this work with industry?

SL: Industry is very interested in doing this with us. They have a lot of reasons to partner with us. But as far as research goes, we’re going to work in that sweet spot called precompetitive research. Certainly industry has certain aspects of their portfolio that they’re keeping very close to the vest. We’ll probably not work on those too much, but work on bigger, global problems that are precompetitive. They could even work on things that are closer to their wheelhouse in our building, if they choose. But they really want to work with university scientists and graduate students, because they want to build the pipeline of people that will eventually become their employees.

X: What kind of conversations have you had with industry, and to what extent is industry shaping this initiative?

SL: We’ve had lots of conversations with them at pretty high levels. They’re very frank and they let us know what they’d like to see. Each company has a slightly different vision. If you look at how these companies are working, they’re all partnering with key universities in very large strategic partnerships. They’d love to partner with us, since we’re local. They acquire the “R” in R&D by acquiring small startup companies. They really want this partnership and this initiative to be an engine for creating 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?

SL: We’re projecting a cost for the entire initiative of around $180 million. It’s a big vision. But $162 million of that will be the building itself. The remainder will be for faculty, running it, and maintenance, and to seed projects. We hope to get as much as we can from the state through the state legislative building process. We’re working to get funding money for the building in the next legislative session. We also have a philanthropic entity in the state who is willing to provide a significant amount of funding for the building. We’re also going to fundraise. We also may have some leases for the corporate partners in the building.

X: Would there be industry contributions?

SL: Depending on how much money we receive from the state legislature.

X: Would that give a company particular preference or access to the facility?

SL: I suspect that there could be some strategic partnerships with some specific companies, should they be involved in helping build the building. That won’t be at the exclusion of other projects. They’ll be taking a portion of the capacity, for sure.

X: What is the process for building this new facility?

SL: We’re an entity of the state. There’s a mechanism for getting state-funded buildings. There’s a priority list. As far as the funding goes, you start with planning money, which is 10 percent of the cost of the building. We’re doing something different. Instead of going to the legislature and simply asking for the required 10 percent planning money, we are raising half of that—$9 million dollars. We’re doing that to really show to the state legislature that there is tremendous statewide stakeholder support for this effort, really show that the commodity groups, the growers, are behind us to the point where they are willing to put funding to it. We’ve already raised over $7 million of it, and we’ve got significant contributions from the major commodity groups in the state.

X: You’re calling this a plant sciences initiative. Is this only related to food crops? You’ve already talked about plant-based pharmaceutical manufacturing. Do other plant applications, such as biofuels, fit into this?

SL: Two thirds of the ag economy in North Carolina is from animal production. This is a plant sciences initiative. But [animal farmers] have great interest and they have great value out of this initiative, as well. The long term structural issue they have is sourcing food, grain, locally. One of the biggest costs is importing grain from the Midwest, or even from Brazil. Certainly, one of the major deliverables we hope to make is to figure out ways to grow more grain locally for animals.

As far as biofuels, it’s not a specific deliverable. But I can see a biofuels project being part of this. The economics of biofuels is very fluid. That really calls out for an interdisciplinary approach. In my opinion, when we do a systems approach to plant science there should always be an economist as part of the project. If we come up with a solution, is it just an academic solution or is it a real-world solution? That’s certainly true, probably more so, for biofuels. We might not go too far down a discovery road if it doesn’t make too much financial sense. At the end of the day, this initiative is more than just ivory tower creating more knowledge for the sake of new knowledge, it’s creating new knowledge to be used.

X: Will this initiative make CALS bigger? Will you be adding more faculty and enrolling more students?

SL: Well, CALS has been getting smaller over the last 15 years or so, because of budget cuts. This will probably stem that. It will probably stabilize the number of faculty. Other than this initiative, we really don’t see baseline state support growing. We have to transition from state support to other kinds of support to keep the size of the college the same.

X: What is your timeline?

SL: The first date is the first working day in January, to deliver the required report, to the state legislature. The next deadline is to get planning money in next year’s budget. If we get that in the July 2015 budget, the scenario is to use that planning money over the next two, two and a half years to program the building. Construction would start two years after that. We hope to have the building ready for entry in 2020. Again, I do want to stress at the end of the day this is not a building that we’re building—we’re building an initiative.