Agricultural biotechnology startup in RTP raises $14.5 million

dranii@newsobserver.comApril 11, 2013 

A fledgling agricultural biotechnology company founded by a group of industry veterans and serial entrepreneurs has raised $14.5 million in venture capital financing in spite of a notoriously tough funding environment.

“It’s a testament to how good the team is that we’ve put together and the attractiveness of the ag market right now,” said Eric Ward, co-founder and co-CEO of AgBiome, a Research Triangle Park company that was formed in September.

Ward and co-CEO Scott Uknes previously co-founded and ran Cropsolution, a Triangle agbio company that discovered a novel fungicide that it licensed to a major industry player in 2006. Uknes also was a co-founder of Paradigm Genetics, and Ward is a former co-president of ag biotech at Novartis in RTP.

AgBiome is focused on improving crop productivity by identifying novel microbes among the community of microorganisms associated with plants – as well as discovering beneficial genes from those microbes. The end products would be “biologicals,” or micro-organisms that can be applied like a chemical, as well as genes that could be licensed for genetically modified crops.

Uknes said the company is probably two or three years away from launching its first biological, having already identified a microbe that would benefit flowers and vegetables grown in greenhouses.

AgBiome has nine full-time and six part-time employees and expects to have more than 20 full-time workers by the end of the year, Uknes said.

AgBiome announced its financing on Thursday but received the first phase of funds in December.

“We’ve been in stealth mode up to now,” Uknes said.

In addition to Uknes and Ward, other founders of the business include: John Ryals, co-founder and CEO of Metabolon and, before that, co-founder and CEO of Paradigm Genetics; Mike Koziel, former co-founder and CEO of Athenix; Jeff Dangl, the John N. Couch Distinguished Professor of Biology at UNC-Chapel Hill; and Paul Schulze-Lefert, director of the Max-Planck Institute for Plant Breeding in Cologne, Germany.

Dangle and Schulze-Lefert are on the company’s scientific advisory board; Ryals and Koziel are on the board of directors.

“It’s a little bit incestuous,” Uknes said. “We all have known each other for years – some of us for decades.”

Uknes, Ward, Ryals and Koziel all worked together at Ciba-Geigy, which is now part of Syngenta, in the late 1980s and early ’90s.

“Hands down, RTP is the best place in the world to have an agbio company,” said Ward, noting that industry giants BASF, Bayer CropScience, Monsanto and Syngenta all have a major presence here.

At Cropsolution, Ward was officially the CEO and Uknes was the president, but they functioned as co-CEOs.

“We have a great working relationship,” Ward said. “We have complementary skills.”

Ranii: 919-829-4877

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