BioWorld International Correspondent

CropDesign NV raised €16 million in new funding and lifted some of the gloom besetting Europe's beleaguered agricultural biotechnology sector.

The Ghent, Belgium-based company raised the money from existing investors, which, collectively, have put in €45 million since its formation in 1998.

"This round expresses their support of the company," said Herman Van Mellaert, chief operating officer at CropDesign. The transaction represents the largest funding round for an agricultural biotechnology firm since 2001, the company said.

CropDesign plans to use the proceeds to undertake proof-of-concept studies in corn of novel genetic traits it previously identified in rice. The company has borrowed from the high-throughput screening concepts used in drug discovery to develop its TraitMill platform. It combines genetic screening technologies with efficient cloning and plant transformation systems, as well as a highly automated plant monitoring system that involves digital imaging and other advanced evaluation technologies for phenotypic analysis of transgenic plants.

"In a small greenhouse, we basically operate as if we did 100,000 field plots per annum," Van Mellaert said.

The company initially concentrated on working with genes associated with cell-cycle control. It since has extended its focus to a wide range of categories, Van Mellaert said, including genes involved in photosynthesis, transcription control and transport, all of which can influence parameters such as crop yield and stress tolerance. It has amassed a portfolio of about 30 lead traits, some of which have already reached field trials. The results can be spectacular, Van Mellaert said, with increases in yields of up to 50 percent, although he said the company does not expect to achieve that kind of performance in commercial hybrids.

"Commercially, our target is to get to at least 15 percent," he said. "That is really what would make for a blockbuster product."

The company aims to demonstrate proof of concept with corn in field trials. It then would license out its technology to a partner - it has no plans to develop its own commercial crop varieties - that would incorporate it into several products. "You can only have a valuable trait, I'm convinced, if you can introduce it into a number of varieties," Van Mellaert said.

Although the company has built its model system using rice, corn is the main strategic focus, as it is grown from hybrid seeds, developed from male-female crosses every year. It's a $5 billion business dominated by a handful of large agribusiness companies. "Corn is clearly No. 1 in terms of commercial opportunity," Van Mellaert said.

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