Novozymes, a developer of industrial enzymes, plans to hire 100 people at a new R&D facility in Cary where scientists will work to boost the ability of farm crops to fight off pests and tolerate droughts.
The Danish company’s wager on high-performance plants is part of an emerging scientific trend that uses naturally occurring bacteria and fungi to squeeze ever-greater yields of productivity from each acre of farmland.
The company picked the Triangle because of the region’s proximity to research universities and agricultural scientists, said Novozymes Americas region president Adam Monroe.
Novozymes could qualify for as much as $2.3 million in state and local incentives, including grants and tax breaks, if it meets hiring goals and invests at least $36 million in the Cary facility, Monroe said. Half the incentives are still under review and unapproved, he said, but the N.C. Commerce Department has approved a $400,000 One North Carolina Fund grant, which is contingent on a local match.
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The facility, to be built and staffed within 18 months, will house scientists who analyze and select microorganisms that will be coated onto seeds or paired with the seeds to be sold worldwide by the agricultural giant Monsanto. In the interim Novozymes will do the work at temporary facilities, including an existing lab in Salem, Va.
Novozymes announced its partnership with Monsanto in December, including a $300 million upfront payment to Novozymes. But at the time of its announcement the collaboration did not include details about the Cary research facility.
The new jobs will include scientists, engineers and chemists, paying on average $70,000 a year plus benefits. Wake County’s average annual wage is $49,410.
Microorganisms help plants take up nutrients and water, and scientists are only recently finding ways to optimize the combinations so that crops require less fertilizer and less irrigation, said Joseph Kieber, a biology professor at UNC Chapel Hill.
“This is really pioneering work that’s being done,” Kieber said of the field. “We’re at the early stages of this whole enterprise.”
This area of plant science, sometimes called metagenomics, is only several years old, Kieber said. The first crops to receive microorganism boosters were peas, lentils and soybeans, and the science has since spread to corn and ornamental landscape plants.
Novozymes employs more than 6,200 people worldwide, including 545 at its North American headquarters and manufacturing lab in Franklin County, where it makes more than 700 products. The company also said it is investing $30 million in energy efficiency and equipment at its 35-year-old Franklinton site, where it produces enzymes used in the production of biofuels and other industrial processes.
Enzymes are biological molecules that speed up chemical reactions and are a key element in the conversion of plants and waste into fuels. Without the aid of modern chemistry, the energy-conversion process can take millions of years, resulting in fossil fuels such as coal, crude oil and natural gas.