Agtech Sprouts From North Carolina’s Fertile Ground: A Company Map

Xconomy Raleigh-Durham — 

Tobacco is still king in North Carolina, the top crop in the nation’s largest tobacco-producing state. But these days, North Carolina tobacco means more than cigarettes.

Medicago’s facility in Durham, NC, for example, manufactures vaccines from tobacco plants. And a startup called SynShark has set up a Cornelius, NC, research site where it is testing how well engineered tobacco plants can manufacture the chemical squalene, an ingredient in cosmetics and pharmaceuticals.

Agriculture is the biggest industry in North Carolina, representing $84 billion in annual business, according to the state’s Department of Agriculture. Now agtech and agbio companies represent a fast-growing segment of an industry that is about more than just food production.

The North Carolina Biotechnology Center counts more than 80 agbio companies of various sizes employing approximately 8,900 people in the state. To show the breadth of agricultural technology in North Carolina, Xconomy mapped out a subset of companies in this sector throughout the state. We also included a table (below) to show some key figures about these companies. We didn’t map all of the agtech companies from the Biotech Center’s directory, which includes some industry service providers, biofuel companies, and others. Instead of trying to be comprehensive, we chose companies with the goal of being representative of the agtech efforts underway in the state.

Our subjective criteria led us to select 32 companies that we believe showcase a wide range of sizes, ages, focus areas, and geographies. The list includes some well-known names, as well as emerging young companies that are still under the radar.

Several multinational companies maintain major agbio operations in North Carolina—BASF (FWB: BAS), Bayer (FWB: BAYN), and Syngenta (NYSE: SYT) have global or North American headquarters in the state. A Novozymes (NASDAQ OMX: NZYM) site outside Research Triangle Park is working in partnership with Monsanto (NYSE: MON) to develop and commercialize beneficial microbes intended to improve crop yields.

Our list includes many startups as well. Since 2010, at least 26 agbio companies have launched in or relocated to the Tar Heel State, according to the Biotech Center. Newcomers to North Carolina’s agbio scene include RTP-based AgBiome; Durham-based Precision BioSciences; and Alrgn Bio, based in Greensboro. The startup count is poised to grow with the addition this year of AgTech Accelerator, a new venture-backed program in RTP that aims to find promising early-stage agricultural technologies and build companies around them.

The Research Triangle is home to most of the state’s agbio activity, but agtech’s footprint spans the entire state. Syngenta, for example, operates a crop protection regional headquarters in Greensboro, in addition to its biotechnology site in RTP. In Davidson, NC, SoyMeds is researching therapeutics developed from soybean seeds. Agbio research extends as far west as the Appalachian Mountains, where Black Mountain-based startup Phytonix is researching how to use cyanobacteria to manufacture chemicals.

Take a look at some of the companies forming North Carolina’s agbio cluster in our map and table. If there are companies you think we might have missed, let me know at [email protected]

CompanyFoundedAgtech focus
Advanced Animal Diagnostics2001Diagnostic devices for animals
Alrgn Bio2014Enzymatic technology for removing peanut allergens
AgBiome2013Agricultural microbial discovery and development
Agile Sciences2007Crop antimicrobial derived from sea sponge
Applied LifeSciences & Systems2015Vaccine delivery technology for poultry
Arbiom2015Bio-based chemicals and materials
BASF1998Crop protection and plant science
Bayer1863Crop protection and pest control
Benanova2013Nanoparticle technology for pesticides
Benson Hill BioSystems2012“Cloud biology” studying plant genomics
BioResource International1999Animal feed additive derived from enzymes
EntoGenetics2007Silk from engineered silkworms
Enzerna Biosciences2014RNA technology to regulate photosynthesis, yield
Galaxy Diagnostics2007Infectious disease diagnostics for veterinary medicine
Medicago1999Vaccine production from tobacco plants
Mycorrhiza Biotech2006Mycorrhiza for agricultural production
Mycosynthetix2001Fungi research for medical and agricultural applications
NanoVector2002Drug delivery via plant virus nanoparticle
Novozymes BioAg2000Agricultural microbial discovery and development
Phytonix2009Chemical production from engineered cyanobacteria
Piedmont Animal Health2001Animal health arm of Piedmont Pharmaceuticals
Plant Health Care1995Technology to activate plants’ innate growth, defense mechanisms
Precision BioSciences2012Gene-editing technology for medical, plant applications
SePRO1993Aquatics and horticulture R&D site for Indiana-based SePRO
SoyMeds2005Therapeutics from soybeans
Sun Dance Genetics1988Corn genetics
Syngenta2000Crop protection, crop research
Synshark2013Chemical production from tobacco plants
Trana Discovery2000Anti-infective discovery technology for crops
Verdesian Life Sciences2012Biological treatments, inoculants for agriculture
Zoetis 1985Poultry vaccination tech (Embrex acquisition)

Photo courtesy of Flickr user Mangrove Mike via a Creative Commons license.