Vilsack visits home of the GreenGenes

By Kris Bevill | May 16, 2011

Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack visited Medford, Mass., on May 13 to tour Agrivida Inc.’s laboratory and draw attention to the company’s innovative approach to produce advanced biofuels, renewable chemicals and other bio-based products. Agrivida is developing a trademarked technology named GreenGenes, which consists basically of eliminating the need for outside enzymes to convert energy crops by engineering plants that contain dormant enzymes. The enzymes are activated post-harvest using a proprietary process which enables them to break down the biomass into sugars that can then be fermented for biofuels or used to produce other bio-based products.

Agrivida believes it is the commercial leader in this type of biofuel crop development. Using corn stover and switchgrass, it has so far demonstrated that plants engineered with GreenGenes intein-modified enzymes develop normally and require less pretreatment and lower enzyme loadings for conversion to sugars. The company partnered with Syngenta’s venture capital arm in December, trading equity in exchange for access to Syngenta’s crop technology licenses. The collaboration will enable Agrivida to develop new traits for a variety of crops, including corn, sorghum, switchgrass and miscanthus, according to the company. Michael Rabb, founder and president of Agrivida said all of his company’s research is currently conducted in greenhouses, but initial field trials could commence next year depending on the results of processing validation efforts this year. Raab anticipates the enzyme-containing crops to become available commercially in 2016. “While we may do a more limited launch of the product that would enable potentially a 2015 planting, it would be fairly restricted and focus on providing material to a single facility,” he said. “After deregulation of the trait, and once the first few facilities are operating using our materials, we would then expand more broadly.”

Agrivida has received financial support from a number of private firms as well as the federal government. Investors in the technology include five venture capital firms, the U.S. DOE, and the USDA. In November 2009, the company received a $2 million grant through the USDA’s Biomass Research and Development Initiative for its research using sorghum as a feedstock. During that same month, the DOE provided $4.6 million to the company through its Advanced Research Projects Agency - Energy, otherwise known as ARPA-E, to engineer enzyme-containing switchgrass. Vilsack reiterated his agency’s commitment to Agrivida and projects like it after touring the facility, commenting that the USDA will continue to invest in research with the goal of reducing the nation’s dependence on foreign oil.

 “The president understands that we need to be watchful of our federal resources. We’re going to have to spend less, there’s no question about that,” he said. “But we have to spend wisely. While we are dealing with deficit reduction we want to make sure that we don’t reduce the spending that constitutes investments, or reduce the spending and commitment to research and development that can help grow jobs and the economy and help grow our way out of this deficit.”

Federal assistance is often crucial for innovative projects such as Agrivida’s because they often carry risks that are unappealing to private investors. Raab said his company seeks government support to augment its private financing whenever it is feasible. “Some projects we work on are too risky, or too long term for private funding at this time, in which case government funding may help enable such technologies to be developed to the point where private funding can pick up the development,” he said. “Likewise, some projects that are close to the market can be moved more quickly into commercialization from the government, and we try to augment our resources with that kind of support when we can.”

Referencing recently released analysis conducted by Iowa State University and University of Wisconsin economists that illustrates ethanol’s role in reducing gas prices, Vilsack noted that technologies such as Agrivida’s will serve to further decrease gas prices by allowing for more cost effective biofuel production. He highlighted the correlation between high energy prices and economic strain and said the government does not want gas prices to continue to rise, primarily because of its detrimental impact on job recovery. “The reality is we’re a recovering economy,” he said. “We’re not all the way there, so it’s important and necessary that we continue the momentum. High energy costs have a way of derailing that momentum, so we want to see energy prices come down.”