Tour Brings Extension Agents to Ag Tech Startups

Large group of people in a building

A recent training on emerging agricultural technology companies has sparked ideas for North Carolina Cooperative Extension agents who see value in learning about those companies as they work to support the state’s farmers.

Fifteen agents, all part of the North Carolina Plant Sciences Initiative’s Extension Agent Network, spent two days visiting seven startup companies in the Research Triangle and meeting with NC State representatives about university programs supporting startups.

The agent network is designed to connect North Carolina Cooperative Extension agents with the interdisciplinary agricultural research taking place at NC State University. The tour allowed agents to see new possibilities in helping connect growers with startups and the technology and services they are developing to advance agriculture.

Network member Austin Brown, a field crops agent and county Extension director in Camden County, said the tour “really got my wheels turning.”

“Since I’ve become an extension agent in 2016, I haven’t toured any private sector facilities in RTP like that,” he said. “It’s exciting to see some of the robust work being done in a lot of different disciplines to develop technologies that we’ll eventually be seeing in the field to help farmers where I serve.”

A closer look at ag tech startups

Agents started their tour May 2 at the Plant Sciences Building on NC State’s Centennial Campus. There, they learned about programs aimed at helping startups that have licensed university intellectual property.

Later, they met with representatives of three of those startups:

  •  HoofPrint Biome, which is developing probiotics and natural enzymes to improve cattle health and digestive efficiency while eliminating methane, a greenhouse gas.
  • Raleigh Biosciences, which uses single cell gene expression to advance plant biology research.
  • Flip Biosystems, which has engineered composting systems that capture carbon.

The agents also visited four companies in Research Triangle Park:

  • Harpe BioHerbicide Solutions, which uses active compounds in plant extracts to develop natural herbicide formulations.
  • Avalo, which identifies key genes of interest for crop improvement.
  • Pairwise, one of the world’s first companies to commercialize gene -dited food and agricultural products.
  • Greenlight Biosciences, which uses RNA solutions to address challenges in agriculture.

They also toured the North Carolina Biotechnology Center, a state-sponsored initiative that supports companies engaged in biotechnology, and Alexandria LaunchLabs, which provides offices, labs and other services to early-stage life science and ag tech companies.

Connecting growers, agents and researchers

N.C. PSI Director of Innovation Partnerships Kathleen Denya and Program Manager Sarah Dinger planned the tour. Their goal, Dinger said, was to introduce agents to ag tech startups and inspire understanding of  the ag tech development pipeline.

From what Brown said, it appears they succeeded.

“You hear about RTP and all the research that’s going on, but it’s hard to grasp until you can see it firsthand,” he said. “Once you see it, you have a greater understanding of the innovative work that’s going on in our state.”

Sam Marshall, an area specialized agent for ornamental crops in 28 western North Carolina counties, agreed.

“Extension agents are used to the traditional model of how research is conducted at universities from the applied perspective,” he said. “I just didn’t expect all the private industry tech that was working toward helping growers solve problems.”

Marshall and Brown believe agents could play a role in communicating growers’ needs to industry researchers.

“One of the issues that a company brought up was not knowing what some of the biggest needs are for agriculture in different areas and ways that they can address those needs,” Brown said. “In Extension, agents are boots on the ground in all 100 counties and with the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians, and we’ve got a really good finger on the pulse of the issues that are affecting our farmers and clients.”

Marshall said that agents not only have knowledge of growers’ needs, they’re also “versed enough” in technology to serve as a communications conduit between researchers and growers.

He sees value in communicating growers’ needs early in the technology development process, and he thinks he could play a role in helping researchers finetune their work so their technology can apply to crops beyond those they are designed for.

Dinger saw value in the tour for both agents and the startups. 

“It was exciting to see agents react and respond to some of the new technologies being developed and immediately thinking of ways that this technology could benefit the growers they work with,” Dinger said. 

“It was also powerful to see startup companies react to the energy of the agents,  to sense that excitement around their products and to see the potential of collaborating with Extension agents to advance the technology development pipeline.”

This post was originally published in Plant Sciences Initiative.