RESEARCH TRIANGLE PARK — GreenLight Biosciences, headquartered in Boston, expects to double the size of its Research Triangle Park plant and data science operation over the next two years.

“We’re already looking to expand in the Triangle,” said Andrey Zarur, Ph.D., GreenLight co-founder and CEO. That includes finding additional greenhouse space and developing collaborations with Triangle universities, which he says are among “the best on the planet.”

“They’re the tip of the spear,” he says of the Triangle offices and labs. In an interview with the North Carolina Biotechnology Center, Zarur said GreenLight’s 30-person Triangle operation is playing a significant role in developing its first RNA-derived product, a biopesticide that attacks the Colorado potato beetle. The hardy, hard-to-kill pest is often resistant to other pesticides.

Colorado potato beetle adult and larva eating potato leaves.

The product has been tested in 30 trials at 15 field sites from Washington to Maine, showing a 100 percent kill rate at a very low dose “with no impact whatsoever on non-targeted species,” says Zarur. “It’s a game-changer.’”

GreenLight is pioneering this groundbreaking RNA technology to improve the sustainability of the agricultural industry, providing a safe and natural pesticide alternative.

The company also is exploring life science applications to increase the speed of vaccine production and stop the spread of infectious disease.

GreenLight’s technology platform develops products that attack only the targeted pest and are harmless to other insects, plants, or people. It also focuses on making its products as inexpensive as possible and competitive with existing pesticides, says Zarur. “We’re losing 2 to 3% of our insects every year,” he warns. That includes bees and other pollinators.

“If we don’t do something radically different soon, we won’t have a sustainable planet.”

The Research Triangle operation also helped develop its next product in line, a highly targeted pesticide to combat the fall armyworm, the larval life stage of the fall armyworm moth. They can destroy an entire cornfield overnight and have had devastating effects in Africa, particularly harming small farmers where a crop is necessary for survival.

GreenLight has raised about $100 million so far

Founded in 2009, GreenLight has raised about $100 million in venture funding, most recently a $50 million round led by S2G Ventures, Baird Capital and Blue I/O. Several additional top-tier investors, including Continental Grain Company, Tao Capital Partners and Alexandria Venture Investments, joined the investor syndicate. The majority of existing GreenLight investors also participated in the oversubscribed round.

Zarur said the company’s investors have been steady in their support for its vision of a sustainable, environmentally friendly, and a vitally needed approach to solving problems in both plant and human health. “Ten years is a long time and many investors will give up after four or five years,” he noted.

Zarur has been an entrepreneur, inventor, academic and philanthropist during his 25-year career in the areas of engineering, health sciences and sustainable technology. He has led the creation, launch and acquisition of more than a dozen companies in the health care and clean energy sectors. He was even involved in an early electric car startup. Of his eclectic background, he says, “I’ve got more degrees than a thermometer.”

He co-founded GreenLight Biosciences with Marta Ortega-Valle of Spain and Stanford professor Jim Swartz, to solve big problems facing society. The company harnesses the power of RNA, one of the basic building blocks of life. It developed a proprietary, cell-free bioprocessing method, which will reduce the cost of producing safe and environmentally friendly RNA.

He said the company chose to locate its plant and data science operation in the RTP for a number of reasons, but particularly for the quality of expertise available at its world-class universities with many scientists involved in plant science research and their graduates as potential hires. “It comes down to people,” Zarur says.

He adds, “We wanted to be in a cluster of like-minded companies. It wasn’t that hard a choice. I was visiting the RTP site and found people so nice, open, and eager to help.” He joked with a colleague, “Maybe I should move my desk down here.”

Then he did.

(c) North Carolina Biotechnology Center

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