Research Triangle Park agricultural biotechnology startup Benson Hill Biosystems, bootstrapped with an NCBiotech loan in 2012, has been awarded nearly $100,000 by the U.S. Department of Agriculture to pursue its development of enhanced plant productivity.

The $99,020 award, announced earlier this month, is one of 100 across the country from the USDA’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA).

NIFA awarded more than $18 million in grants to small businesses “for high quality, advanced research and development that will lead to technological innovations and solutions for American agriculture.” The grants are run through the Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) program.

Benson Hill Scientist Ben Gray said he and his colleagues will use the grant money to develop field corn that can better withstand heat and drought conditions expected in coming years because of climate change.

The United States corn crop increased nearly 5 percent a year from 1983 until drought and heat ravaged fields in 2012, said Gray, resulting in a drop of some 13 percent that was blamed for food shortages and price increases worldwide.

“Many of the 97 million acres planted with this crop in the U.S. are grown in geographies that are expected to be adversely impacted by the predicted trend toward higher average temperatures,” he added.

Earlier in 2014 Benson Hill announced that it had received a pair of Phase 1 Small Business Technology Transfer grants from the National Science Foundation, for research focused on improving plants’ ability to use daylight – a process known as photosynthetic efficiency.

Benson Hill’s ultimate goal is to increase yields for a wide range of crops. The company announced industry partnerships around potatoes and sugarcane in 2014.

NCBiotech awarded Benson Hill a $50,000 Company Inception Loan in 2012. In early 2014 the company was also awarded a $52,000 from NCBiotech to support the first year of what’s expected to be a two-year Industrial Fellowship. The award enabled North Carolina State University postdoctoral researcher Roopa Yalamanchili, Ph.D., to join the research team at Benson Hill and experience industrial research as a possible career path while contributing to the company’s scientific work.

Under the SBIR program, companies initially apply for these Phase I feasibility studies, which may be followed by Phase II research and development projects. Phase I grants are limited to $100,000 and a duration of eight months, while Phase II grants are limited to $450,000 and a duration of 24 months. Approximately 30 to 40 percent of Phase I projects continue into Phase II.

Note: Jim Shamp is director of public relations for the N.C. Biotechnology Center.

(C) N.C. Biotech Center