By Mary Welch

Novartis AG said it plans to spend more than $20 million to increase the size of its agricultural biotech research facility in Research Triangle Park, N.C.

The company will add a building and greenhouses, as well as renovate existing laboratories. The expanded facility is expected to open in early 2000.

"We have had a biotechnology facility here for 15 years, and this expansion shows that we are continuing to grow in the area of agricultural biotechnology," said Rich Lotstein, director of regulatory and public affairs for Novartis Agribusiness Biotech Research Inc. (NABRI).

The complex eventually will house 260 researchers, as compared with the current 170. Total staff will be increased by more than 100, bringing the number to 320 employees. Lotstein said he expects "significant hiring in a number of areas."

Staffers will work closely with other Novartis agribusiness research centers around the world, including the recently formed Novartis Agricultural Discovery Institute Inc. (NADI) in San Diego. Discoveries made at NADI will be used in further research at NABRI and developed as part of the Novartis Seeds and Novartis Crop Protection product development pipelines.

The expansion will "take us into our next major phase and, over time, some research operations may be consolidated into this facility," Lotstein said. "We have significant projects going on that may affect seed or crop protection projects. There are a number of joint projects where both sides of the fence may be straddled."

Basel, Switzerland-based Novartis dedicated more than $600 million over the next 10 years to agricultural genomics research and development. NADI will eventually employ 180 scientists working in 50 labs who will focus on matching genes with traits, primarily through the production and exploitation of gene and protein databases. The research center is expected to be up and running next year. (See BioWorld Today, July 23, 1998, p. 1.) *