BY DAVID RANII
Agricultural biotechnology company AgBiome has raised $34.5 million from investors that it plans to plow into research and development and the anticipated launch of its first product. The new funding is one of the largest venture capital hauls by a Triangle company this year.
The Research Triangle Park company, which has only existed since the end of 2012 and which previously raised $17.5 million from investors, intends to announce the new funding Thursday. AgBiome has 36 full-time and 14 part-time employees, and expects to add “a half-dozen or more” R&D employees this year and more than a dozen next year, said Dan Tomso, chief scientific officer. The company also anticipates assembling a sales team, but wouldn’t begin to do that until next year in conjunction with the anticipated regulatory approval of its first product, said Andrew Graham chief financial officer. AgBiome isn’t disclosing its hiring plans for its sales team. AgBiome plans to move into a new 30,000-square foot facility, which includes a 5,000-square-foot greenhouse, early next year. That space can accommodate up to 70 employees.
The company anticipates submitting an application for its first product to the Environmental Protection Agency in the next few weeks and hopes to begin selling it next year. That product, known internally as Howler, is a natural, or biological, fungicide that can be used by organic farmers. Most biological pesticides on the market today “just don’t work that well,” Tomso said. “Howler works as well as the flagship chemical solutions that are out there,” he said. “This stuff really, really works.”
AgBiome’s research is focused on identifying novel microbes in plants such as corn and soybeans that can lead to more productive crops. “We’re interested in microbes that live in and around and on plants,” Tomso said. AgBiome was founded by a group of industry veterans led by Scott Uknes and Eric Ward, who previously founded and ran Cropsolution, a Triangle agbio company that discovered a novel fungicide that it licensed to a major industry player. “This would have been very hard to do in any other city in the world,” Tomso said of AgBiome. “RTP is the Silicon Valley for agriculture of this kind.”
Graham said that investors are increasingly interested in agricultural biotechnology companies because the sector is less risky than with “human pharmaceuticals,” where companies can spend enormous sums on developing drugs that may not pass muster with regulators. The investors in AgBiome’s latest round of funding include Syngenta Ventures, the venture capital arm of agbio giant Syngenta, and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, among others.