By Lisa Seachrist
WASHINGTON — In an attempt to create a company that encompasses the broadest range of agricultural biotechnology resources possible, Dow AgroSciences LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of the Dow Chemical Corp., formed a new agro-biotechnology company, Advanced AgriTraits LLC.
The new company will serve as a sort of clearinghouse for biotech companies and academic researchers interested in offering their technology to the agricultural seed industry via strategic alliances and licensing agreements. As a result of the alliance format, companies participating with Advanced AgriTraits will retain a greater stake in their intellectual property than would be possible under traditional licensing agreements.
"Our aim is for people who provide germplasm to be able to work together to put together the broadest portfolio of traits," said Bill Tolbert, global biotechnology business leader for Dow AgroSciences, of Indianapolis. He is president and CEO of Advanced AgriTraits, which will also be based in Indianapolis. "We don't believe that one company can monopolize the life sciences field," Tolbert said.
Advanced AgriTraits will develop cassettes of desirable traits that can be inserted into the germplasm of a number of different plants. Traits for herbicide resistance, insect resistance, disease resistance, the production of modified starches and proteins, and enhanced nutritional value will be produced, among others, as independent cassettes. These cassettes can be stacked to create the multiple traits that make a seed that will produce plants well suited for, say, the short growing season in Minnesota. A different set of traits could enable the same plant to adapt to the steamy summers of the southeast U.S.
Seed companies could then choose among the desired traits to suit their needs. As a result, Advanced AgriTraits will provide non-exclusive access to an enormous variety of plant traits.
While Advanced AgriTraits will pursue the development of its own technology, Tolbert said, the goal is to provide companies and academic institutions a cost-effective way to exploit their technologies and discoveries — without having to make pricey acquisitions of seed companies or selling the exclusive rights to their technology to the highest bidder. Tolbert envisions a licensing network created in the process, providing access to the greatest variety of agricultural biotechnology.
"We want to have the broadest portfolio available and the broadest platform to receive that technology," Tolbert said.
The move to create Advanced AgriTraits is part of strategy by Midland, Mich.-based Dow Chemical to use biotechnology as a means to accelerate the company's growth in all areas of its business. Dow AgroSciences has also entered into a genomics research alliance with Biosource Technologies, Inc., to create specific crop traits with biotechnology.
Rather than rely on a brute-force sequencing strategy to identify desirable genetic traits, Biosource takes a functional approach. The Vacaville, Calif.-based firm has developed a means of expressing genes from plants or microbes in plants and assaying the function of the gene. The company then sequences genes that are of interest.
The collaboration provides Dow AgroSciences with the rights to all genes discovered that provide useful crop traits. In addition, the company envisions using the technology to screen for genes that provide industrial products.
Method Takes Research Directly To Gene Function
Ron Meeusen, global leader for biotechnology research and development for Dow AgroSciences, said Biosource's technology "allows us to bypass the sequence generated computer analysis and go directly to the function. We will put the genes through our high-throughput biochemical screens and patent the interesting ones and develop product. This is the next wave of technology."
Biosource maintains the rights to all pharmaceutical and animal health applications of the technology and intends to move forward in that arena.
Robert Erwin, chairman, CEO and founder of Biosource, said the company "had the pleasant experience of having lots of people interested in our technology. We chose Dow because of their combined expertise in both agricultural and industrial chemistry. They are committed to the industrial applications of the technology, which we think will be very important."
Terms were not disclosed. Erwin said Dow has put up sufficient resources to allow the alliance to be competitive with the biggest plant genomics operations in the race to patent desirable plant traits.
"There is a very serious race under way, and now there is a major new entrant in that race," Erwin said. *