Note: A host of startups in animal, food and crop science showcase their wares at a NC Biotech Center event in Durham. Here’s a look at the lineup, including three from North Carolina.

DURHAM – A Missouri startup with a smartphone-enabled platform for on-site microbiology testing won the $10,000 first prize at the North Carolina Biotechnology Center’s Crop, Animal, and Food Tech Showcase.

A Minnesota firm developing probiotics as an alternative to antibiotic use in livestock took the $2,500 second prize.

The iNDxer handheld device developed by winner Nanopore Diagnostics, of St. Louis, detects more than 50 microbial targets — bacterial, viral, fungal or parasitic — and delivers results in 30 minutes.

“You can take this microbiology lab to where it’s needed,” said Tom Cohen, co-founder and CEO. Initially, the company is marketing the device to offshore salmon farms, which lose $430 million a year to disease.The iNDxer allows the farms to screen for pathogens on-site and get results in minutes rather than days.

“Disease prevents the salmon from growing to full weight,” Cohen said. The device, he explained, can screen a cage of 50 salmon, which gives 95 percent confidence in results, for the affordable price of $100 a cage. A DNA probe, pre-coated so it identifies which pathogen comes from which fish, tests mucus from the gill and gives results in under half an hour via a readout on a cell phone. It is, Cohen said, “a $250 million opportunity.”

Founded in 2012, Nanospore raised $1.2 million and won several previous grants and showcase-like awards, including $50,000 in the St. Louis Startup Challenge and $50,000 from the St. Louis-based Arch Grants.

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The company is seeking a $900,000 bridge financing, which it hopes to follow with a $3.5 million Series A raise and an $11 million Series B round by 2021.

In the future, Nanospore hopes the device may be used in animal husbandry, food processing and human health applications.

General Probiotics wins second prize

Runner-up General Probiotics, based in St. Paul, is developing advanced, safe-to-consume antimicrobial probiotics that target pathogens in chickens.

Yiannis Kaznesis, CEO, pointed out that overuse of antibiotics in farm animals is one significant cause of increasing antibiotic resistance. In 2012, 68 percent of all antibiotics sold in the U.S. were administered to animals. Most antibiotics used in food animals are sold over-the-counter, but in 2017, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) banned the use of OTC antibiotics in food animals.

That, however, poses a threat to the animal production industry. “Farmers urgently need new antimicrobials to raise healthy livestock,” Kaznesis said.

In the poultry industry, demand doubled in the last three decades globally, he said. In the U.S., we each consume about 100 pounds a year. The size of birds tripled in the last few decades, largely sustained by the use of the now-banned antibiotics

Kaznesis noted that the FDA has declared that the claims regarding the use of probiotics in humans and animal livestock are unproven and should be considered “puffery.”

He said his company’s advanced antimicrobial probiotics solution, however, is 1,000 times more active than regular probiotics and the performance it delivers “is beyond puffery.”

Produced using synthetic biology techniques, it has shown 97 percent elimination of Salmonella in poultry, 1,000 times less than with regular probiotics. “It lowered bird mortality by 37 percent,” Kaznesis said.
The platform used to develop the advanced probiotics can be applied to other livestock and eventually, humans, although that would require about 12 years to bring to market.

The company has raised $1 million in Small Business Innovative Research (SBIR) grants and owner funding. It is seeking $3 million in equity backing. It projects sales of $40 million by 2024.

Three North Carolina startups presented

Three North Carolina startups presented at the event: Induction Food Systems (IFS), Glean, and RxMaker.

Induction Food Systems of Durham uses solid-state electronics to bring increased efficiency, faster heating, less energy use and fewer maintenance headaches to industrial heating, said Anita Shek, R&D project manager with SinnovaTek.

Shek said IFS’s electric-powered, induction heating system, which works with any type of fluids moving through pipes, such as beverages, soups, or even mashed potatoes, offers a solution to a major industry problem.

“Industrial fluid heating with boilers and piping is dumb and needs to get smarter,” Shek said. “It’s slow, imprecise, has hidden costs and limited expansion.”

It also tends to cause fouling, a $5 billion industry problem, because it heats unevenly, overcooking fluids on the outside walls the way a pan can overcook on the bottom.

Current, boiler-based systems also waste energy because they heat the room as well as the fluids. The IFS system converts 95 percent of input energy to captured heat, compared to 20 percent for standard steam systems.

“IFS generates heat where you need it in the core of the food and spreads out from there,” Shek explained. “The design also causes turbulence that mixes the food during the process.”

IFS benefits, she said, include more uptime, three times less energy use, no emissions, and a smaller footprint. The food and beverage market alone is a $148 billion industry.

The company is looking for “strong channel partners, engineering groups, and $450,000 in funding,” said Shek.

Glean, based in Snow Hill, makes and sells 100 percent vegetable flours, including sweet potato, beet, and pumpkin.

Founded by serial entrepreneurs, Glean generated more than $146,000 in e-commerce sales and expects to be in 1,000 retail stores by mid-summer 2018, including Food Lion and Harris Teeter.

The company donates a pound of product to people in need for every pound sold. Laura Hearn, co-founder, said the company can do that for pennies on the dollar because of its relationships with growers. It works with North Carolina organizations to distribute the donations.

RxMaker, a Durham spinoff from Ag TechInventures, develops crop, soil, and weather algorithms that will be used to create new data layers on high-resolution field maps to help growers prescribe crop selection, varieties, fertilizer needs, and soil amendments and application rates, said Julianne Bielski,  chief technology officer.

The Biotech Center recently profiled RxMaker.

Other presenting startups

Other startups from New York, Nebraska, California, New Mexico, Virginia, Vermont and South Africa presented innovative technologies ranging from using pheromones to control pests, precise greenhouse humidity control, use innate plant immunity to fight pathogens, and an epigenetic platform to create non-GMO, non-regulated crops with increased yields

Epicrop Technologies, based in Nebraska, is developing the epigenetic platform that creates non-regulated crops with increased yields and higher stress tolerance without making any changes to the DNA sequence of the plant, said Michael Fromm, CEO.

Epigenetic modifications are naturally occurring biological marks on the plant’s DNA or chromatin. They are involved in regulating gene expression but do not cause changes in the genome.

The company works with seed companies and says it increases crop yields by 20 percent or more.

Innate Immunity, based in Santa Fe, New Mexico, is developing both long-term and short-term therapies to clear bacterial diseases, said Goutam Gupta, Ph.D., co-founder and chief scientific officer. “We are engineering stronger innate immunity to fight deadly pathogens in humans and plants,” he said.

Plants, he explained, have the ability to recognize and kill pathogens, but the pathogens evolve to evade defenses. “Our solutions strengthen a host’s innate immunity to counter pathogenic attack.”

The company is applying its platform tech to cure infected plants and protect uninfected ones in high-value crops such as grapes, citrus, tomato, apple and pear, but it can be applied to many diseases.

It has shown effectiveness in protecting Thompson seedless grapes from the deadly Pierce’s disease over three years of trials. The wine industry is interested in the technology, as are citrus growers facing the citrus greening threat devastating the industry in Florida.

The company received $500,000 in seed funding in 2018 and is seeking a $500,000 bridge loan

AgroSpheres, based in Charlottesville, Virginia, develops novel nanotechnologies for clean crop protection. Reese Blackwell, CEO, said the technology overcomes problems of conventional crop protection methods, such as significant waste because 70 to 90 percent don’t hit their intended target.

He said AgroSphere’s technology delivers double the dose at half the active ingredient and a fraction of the cost of conventional methods. The company has raised a $750,000 angel round and outfitted a 3,000-square-foot lab in Charlottesville. It hopes to raise $1.5 million in the next few months.

Ascribe Bioscience, based in Ithaca, N.Y., is another crop protection company using technology discovered at Cornell University.

It leverages potent, naturally occurring, non-toxic compounds that stimulate the innate immunity of crops to complement or replace current pathogen management, said Murli Manohar, Ph.D., founder and director of research.

The company uses its platform to mine the soil microbiome to rapidly screen and identify small molecules that have the potential to improve crop production, Manohar said.

It already has ascaroside-based products in its commercialization pipeline and is seeking a $1.7 million investment as well as strategic partners

Beonics Feed Supplements, based in South Africa, uses plant-based flavinoids as an alternative to antibiotic use in livestock, said Ernst Thompson, CEO.

Its product, VivoCare, is a registered non-nutritional phytogenic feed additive product developed by Beonics for the indoor and free-range poultry industry. When VivoCare makes it into the GI tract, it suppresses the growth of gram-negative bacteria, reducing infection opportunities and primes the adaptive immune system.
“It’s very, very safe,” Thompson said, “and we’ve completed successful trials. It’s not limited to chickens and can be applied to other poultry, pork, fish, and pets.”

The company believes it can capture about 10 percent of the $500 million-a-year market and is seeking $1 million to open up the U.S. market.

(C) N.C. Biotechnology Center