BASF expansion of RTP research facilities includes high-tech ‘insect zoo’

dranii@newsobserver.comSeptember 4, 2013 

— Along with new greenhouses, laboratories and office space, chemical giant BASF’s $33 million expansion here includes a series of rooms that have been dubbed “the insect zoo” by Nigel Armes, the company’s director of research and development operations.

The 6,000-square-foot insectary is a climate-controlled, nurturing environment for insects that are prone to wreaking havoc on farmers’ crops. It is designed for breeding, in a given year, millions of aphids, Southern armyworm caterpillars and other creatures, including household pests such as bed bugs and cockroaches.

“We need to grow these pests, essentially, to do our evaluations,” said Nevin McDougall, senior vice president of BASF’s Crop Protection division.

In other words, the insects are used as guinea pigs in BASF’s ongoing efforts to protect farmers’ crops and consumers from pest infestations.

The insects are coddled – the facility even includes an “insect kitchen” for whipping up nutritious meals – right up to the day that they’re exposed to the latest experimental insecticides and biologicals, or natural insect control products, concocted by BASF scientists.

The new insectary – double the size and more high-tech than the one it replaces – is just one piece of the company’s 80,000-square-foot expansion. The additional space aims to enhance BASF’s ability to discover and develop better crops as well as new insecticides, fungicides and herbicides that can be used to produce better harvests.

BASF plans to commemorate the new facility at an official opening ceremony Wednesday morning that is expected to attract a host of dignitaries, including Gov. Pat McCrory.

In addition to the new insectary, which isn’t yet stocked with bugs, visitors will have the opportunity to tour new high-tech greenhouses that are 28-feet-high at their peak – two feet higher than the company’s older greenhouses in order to facilitate better seed harvests. The greenhouses also include “shade cloths” that automatically unfurl as necessary to maintain the proper temperature and grow lights that can be raised or lowered for optimum growing conditions.

Biotech’s ‘Silicon Valley’

BASF, which is based in Germany, has been a fixture in the Triangle since 1986. Today it is part of a cluster of agricultural technology companies that are making this region synonymous with crop science.

“RTP is sort of emerging (as) the Silicon Valley of plant biotechnology,” said Peter Eckes, president and CEO of BASF’s Plant Sciences division. In addition to BASF, Bayer CropScience, Monsanto and Syngenta all have major operations in the Triangle.

BASF’s RTP site houses the North American headquarters for the company’s Crop Protection division that produces products such as insecticides. It’s also the worldwide headquarters for the Plant Science division.

Last year BASF decided to shift the worldwide Plant Science headquarters from Germany to RTP, in part because of Europe’s hostility towards genetically modified crops. The move has ignited a growth spurt in the company’s RTP operations. Today it has 950 employees here, roughly 200 more than it had 18 months ago.

This latest expansion provides space for adding more employees, although McDowell said the company hasn’t finalized just how quickly the RTP workforce will grow.

“Innovation comes with people,” McDougall said. “We expect there is further growth coming.”

The company’s long-term vision includes construction on its 126-acre RTP campus.

On genetically modified crops

The Plant Science unit develops next-generation, genetically modified crops in partnership with corporate partners such as Monsanto and Bayer CropScience, which handle seed production and sales.

“It’s a unique strategy ... that fits very well with BASF’s belief in innovation,” said Eckes, who was among the two dozen employees who moved to RTP from overseas when the Plant Science division relocated. “We believe this strategy can deliver a very good return on investment.”

BASF Crop Protection generated $4.36 billion in revenue in the first half of the year, up 18 percent from a year ago. BASF doesn’t break out sales for its Plant Science division.

Armes, BASF’s director of research-and-development operations, said the company’s expansion shows how it is increasingly relying on technology to drive innovation. The new insectary, for example, can be remotely monitored by BASF scientists at any time.

“The guy that runs the insectary, Bill Fisher, if he wants to he can go online when he is at home on the weekend and actually see what is happening here in these rooms,” Armes said.

Ranii: 919-829-4877

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