​Sometimes the road to drug discovery can be really long, and take you far afield.

For Cary-based Trana Discovery, that long road has just taken a sharp turn – smack into farm fields.

Global agricultural giant Bayer and Trana have signed a collaboration agreement to explore ways to use Trana’s disease-fighting technology to identify plant-protection products.

Bayer has numerous facilities across North Carolina, including a North American and global seeds headquarters on its 124-acre Research Triangle Park campus.

Both companies have declined to reveal financial terms of the deal. But for Trana, it’s about more than money anyway. It’s also about credibility, and another affirmation that it’s onto something unique and potentially valuable.

Trana founders Dick Guenther and Winnell Newman spun the company out of North Carolina State University at the turn of the century, to commercialize its high-tech way to selectively identify and kill harmful pathogens. It targets all the biggies: bacterial, viral, and fungal diseases.

The North Carolina Biotechnology Center helped get the company on its feet in 2001 with a $9,000 grant to NCSU. Another $310,000 in Biotech Center business loans followed, in 2006, 2008 and 2012. At the time, the company focused on therapies to fight the HIV virus and bacterial infection from Staph aureus.

The founders operated as a virtual company to save resources, and hired Steve Peterson as CEO to develop a management team based on his 40 years of experience in drug development and commercialization. His career spans several major pharmaceutical companies including Eli Lilly, Glaxo and GlaxoWellcome where he held positions in sales, marketing, product development and as liaison with key opinion leaders. He launched or assisted in the development of 16 separate brands.

The early Biotech Center support helped Trana qualify for some $1.8 million in other outside funding, including a $720,000 Series A investment round and several federal grants. Meanwhile, Peterson continued to pursue market possibilities for his company’s proprietary technology.

Because the Research Triangle area is a global magnet for agricultural biotechnology, Peterson didn’t have to go far to hear people talking about infections causing problems in plants as well as in people. It became a natural extension for Trana’s tech, especially as companies seek more highly selective weapons to bypass “good bugs” in the microbiome while whacking the nasty ones.

The agreement between Trana and Bayer is to identify novel targets for fungicides that could lead to new solutions against plant diseases affecting the world’s food supply. Those diseases are responsible for hundreds of millions of dollars in annual crop losses worldwide.

“Development of this new class of fungicides possessing a profile of targeted elimination of the harmful fungi while sparing beneficial organisms will give Bayer an industry leading approach to pesticide application,” said Peterson.

Paul Ulanch, Ph.D., MBA, executive director of NCBiotech’s Biotechnology Crop Commercialization Center, agreed.

“Bayer and Trana’s partnership for anti-fungal compounds using Trana’s discovery platform is certainly an excellent opportunity for both companies,” said Ulanch.

“This is the kind of win-win story that truly highlights the best in North Carolina’s leading agricultural life science sector. Bayer, one of our large multinational ag companies, has the foresight to partner with a small local company developing an innovative platform that could result in globally important new products.”

(C) N.C. Biotechnology Center