Brazilian sugarcane biotechnology company CTC is planning a U.S. expansion, and North Carolina’s Research Triangle is one of four regions on its short list for a future research and development site.
Besides North Carolina, the company is also considering Florida, Louisiana, and Missouri for its new outpost. Diego Ferres, head of R&D at CTC, visited several locations during a three-day tour of sites in and around Research Triangle Park this week. Speaking at a meeting with prospective agtech workers, Ferres said his company wants to capture the benefits of new gene technologies that requires expertise that the company can’t easily find in Brazil.
“That’s why we’re here,” he told the workers.
CTC stands for Centro de Tecnologia Canavieira, which translates from Portuguese as Center of Sugarcane Technology. It started in 1969 as a research unit of Brazilian sugar and ethanol company Copersucar, according to CTC’s website. CTC became a corporation in 2011 and launched its first sugarcane varieties two years later. That year, CTC also became a joint stock company with 154 shareholders, some of whom are Brazil’s major sugarcane producers. These shareholders, who are also customers of CTC, account for 60 percent of Brazil’s sugar and ethanol output, Ferres said.
CTC’s research focuses on three areas: conventional breeding; biotechnology; and artificial seeds—seed-like products that can be produced more quickly than natural seeds. CTC owns a bank of sugarcane genetic assets that it says encompasses more than 4,000 varieties of the crop. Ferres says the company currently has 24 research sites.
As a tropical grass native to Asia, sugarcane thrives in warm, steamy climates. Brazil is the world’s largest sugarcane producer, accounting for 39.1 million metric tons for the 2016-2017 season, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Foreign Agricultural Service. India was the second largest sugarcane producer, accounting for 21.9 million metric tons. Most of the sugarcane grown in the U.S. comes from Florida, according to the USDA. Other states that grow the crop are Louisiana, Hawaii, and Texas.
The experience that Florida and Louisiana have with sugarcane make those regions natural contenders for a CTC site. Just prior to arriving in North Carolina, Ferres said he visited Gainesville, FL, and Baton Rouge, LA., both of which are home to land grant universities that can offer sugarcane expertise. Missouri would offer the resources of the Donald Danforth Plant Science Center, as well as potential research partnerships with ag giant Monsanto (NYSE: MON).
Sugarcane is not grown in North Carolina, but the state could offer related expertise, says Nandini Mendu, agbiotech enterprise and technology development director at the North Carolina Biotechnology Center. Mendu was one of the Biotech Center officials who met with Ferres. She noted that researchers at North Carolina State University, which Ferres visited, have experience working with different grasses, such as sorghum. The university also has researchers who have studied alternative fuels. Ethanol made from sugarcane has become a major commodity in Brazil, where it has replaced more than 40 percent the country’s gasoline, according to the Brazilian Sugarcane Industry Association.
Ferres said that more than pure sugarcane experience, CTC is looking for biotechnology expertise. Large ag companies such as Syngenta (NYSE: SYT) and Monsanto have gradually moved away from sugarcane research because of the challenges working with the crop, Ferres said. That leaves the sugarcane expertise with specialized companies such as CTC. Ferres said he hopes that biotechnology advances other ag companies have made can find uses in sugarcane.
“We want to capture everything that has been developed in other crops, and apply it, as quickly as we can, to sugarcane,” he said.
CTC has commercialized some of its own biotech research. Earlier this summer, CTC secured regulatory approval in Brazil for a variety of sugarcane genetically engineered to resist the cane borer, an insect whose larvae bore into sugarcane stalks. The damage weakens the plants and can reduce sucrose yield by as much as 20 percent, according to the University of Florida. Cane borer feeds on other crops, including corn, rice, and sorghum. CTC is also developing sugarcane varieties that can resist other pests.
The region that CTC selects for its U.S. research work will initially have five to seven people in the first year, Ferres said. But he added that the headcount could grow quickly, depending on the progress made. Beyond crop protection, CTC is also interested in expertise that can help the company improve crop yields and boost sugar content. CTC already has a research partnership with Bayer focused on increasing the sugar content of sugarcane, which would improve ethanol production, Ferres said. Bayer CropScience also is headquartered in RTP.
CTC has also worked with Benson Hill Biosystems, an agbio startup whose software helps ag companies develop varieties that produce higher yields. Benson Hill splits its operations between Durham, NC and St. Louis, MO.
St. Louis is Ferres’ next stop.