By Karen Young

Athenix Corp., an early stage company focusing on gene discovery for plant biotechnology, is being led by CEO Mike Koziel, who headed the team that introduced the world¿s first genetically modified corn in 1995.

The Research Triangle Park, N.C.-based company began seeking venture capital when it was founded in April, and disclosed completion of its $8 million first financing round this week.

¿This should let us get everything running full tilt¿ and carry it through the next two years, said Koziel, noting that the company moved into lab space in July. The financing will allow the company to fill out its staff and start developing its intellectual property portfolio. It also will allow it to start talking to potential partners.

Intersouth Partners, of Durham, N.C., and Polaris Venture Partners, of Waltham, Mass., led the investment. Boston Millenia Partners, of Boston, also participated.

Koziel said the company got a good reception without knocking on too many doors.

¿We were fortunate to find the right backing,¿ he said.

Athenix was founded to provide novel genetic solutions for the agriculture, energy and chemical feedstock industries through discovery of new traits. The company¿s core technology platform centers on high-throughput microbial screening and focused genomic screening. Its assays specifically identify strains carrying value-added genes for use in the insecticide, herbicide or biomass conversion areas.

¿If you look at the plants that we made in the past, they all contain genes from microbes with single dominant traits,¿ said Koziel, noting that you can then move one to two traits in the plant.

Koziel is particularly interested in the discovery of genes and proteins for novel output traits and their use to develop transgenic plants for improved biomass conversion to replace fossil petroleum resources with renewable plant resources.

¿[The] materials are on an economically competitive basis with fuel ¿ it¿s all about carbon resources,¿ Koziel said. ¿The plants we¿re looking to create will create the foundation for the petrochemical industry in the 21st century.¿

Athenix has 11 employees, but expects to be at 20 employees by the end of the year, Koziel said.

Koziel and Nadine Carozzi, vice president, product development, were on the Novartis team that developed the first transgenic corn. Other founders worked at Monsanto, Pioneer, Novartis and Roche.