North Carolina is Sowing Seeds of Success for AgTech Startups


There is a powerful competitive advantage for AgTech startups located in North Carolina (NC), with the key determinant of success being proximity to a healthy ecosystem that provides access to talent, patient capital, entrepreneurial development, and existing market opportunities in the context of a supportive and committed legislature. It is by no accident that NC is one of the most fertile AgTech startup ecosystems in the world; the state’s government in collaboration with some of the top research and agriculture institutions in the US, alongside the world’s largest agricultural companies, have worked diligently to leverage the human and natural capital abundant in the region. Agribusiness is the number one industry in NC, contributing in excess of $100B last year towards the state’s economy [1]. As such, NC is one of the top agricultural producers in the US through its broadly diverse offerings, including hogs and poultry, sweet potatoes, tobacco, soybean and Christmas trees. For the second year in a row, NC is ranked as the #1 state for business in the US [2], scoring highest in the nation for its workforce and near the top of the list in the areas of the economy, technology, innovation, and education, bolstered by a business-friendly corporate tax rate currently at 2.5% that will be eliminated by 2030 [3].

Indeed, NC is now a global powerhouse in the AgTech innovation space, showcasing Research Triangle Park (RTP), which places in the top 10 Global AgTech & New Food Startup Ecosystems [4] lauded for its knowledge base, startup experience, talent, and performance. In 1959, a public-university-industry collaborative effort to leverage the state’s rich farming heritage and large talent pool, resulted in the formation of the RTP in Durham, currently the largest high-tech research and development park in the US [5], that coalesced into a force of attraction drawing in the world’s largest agricultural corporations – the first step in anchoring and driving the development of the AgTech ecosystem in NC. Ryan Combs, Executive Director of the Research Triangle Regional Partnership (RTRP), champions Central North Carolina and the surrounding region, “Being the best comes naturally to us. The Research Triangle Region is not only where innovation is made, it’s where innovation is put to work.”

Since 1960, NC has been home, at one time or other, to the world’s largest agricultural companies including BASF, Syngenta, Novozymes, Bayer, Monsanto, UPL, Corteva (DuPont), ADAMA, NuFarm Americas, Verdesian, Plant Health Care and Mosaic Biotech, in large part the result of the preeminent US example of a state-led recruitment effort to attract high-tech companies. This laid the foundation for a powerful business platform on which nearly 200 AgTech and new food sector companies currently operating in NC have built their successes. Some of these successes include Pairwise (CRISPR crop-editing), Oerth Bio (targeted protein degradation), 5Metis (crop protection), Vestaron (crop protection), AgEye (AI sensor), Elo Life Systems (plant gene editing), TARGAN (livestock vaccination), SinnovaTek (food processing), Advanced Animal Diagnostics (AAD–livestock diagnostics). BioResource International (livestock feed additives), Greenlight Biosciences (RNA products), Iluma Alliance (animal nutrition), Tiamat Sciences (plant-based proteins) and Believer Meat (cultivated meat).

Access to world-class academic institutions, including NC State, UNC, Duke, and NC A&T, and a well-developed pool of agricultural industry-savvy talent and world-class tech development is widely recognized as one of the region’s greatest strengths. The N.C. Plant Sciences Initiative (N.C. PSI), which opened recently on the NC State campus, is a public-private partnership specifically formed to create opportunities to continue to grow NC’s thriving agricultural industry into a global leader. The Initiative is striving to become the world’s premier plant sciences enterprise through collaboration in- and across-disciplines within the academic, public and industrial ecosystem. “We live in a diverse agricultural state with a robust community of university and industry leaders.” said Dr. Adrian Percy, Executive Director of the N.C. PSI. “Our initiative leverages the strengths of experts across our network both in the field and in the lab to create plant science solutions.”

AgTech startups in NC are supported by accelerators and incubators, mentor programs and successful entrepreneurs, home-grown and organized networks, and state-sponsored public-private organizations, but we can do more. One of the strongest indicators of a mature startup ecosystem is the depth of this support and one of the strongest drivers is the density of startups [6]. The North Carolina Biotechnology Center (NCBiotech) serves as the state’s vanguard for the recruitment of AgTech companies and works to merge the interests of the academic, private, and public sectors. Dr. Paul Ulanch, Senior Director, Focused Initiatives at NCBiotech outlines the focus on support for AgTech startups in the region “The North Carolina Biotechnology Center has supported crop science and animal health innovation since being formed almost 40 years ago. However, in 2010 the center focused on Ag Tech as a specific initiative to leverage existing strengths to further grow this ecosystem. This includes accelerating connectivity of the global Ag Tech community with the NC ecosystem, convening leadership and professionals, and deploying a loan program to support Ag Tech innovators.”

Force-multiplier resources in the region include First Flight Venture Center (FFVCNC) in the heart of RTP which offers incubator programs (FFVCNC-Propeller) to national and international AgTech startups, and the Research Triangle Regional Partnership (RTRP) spearheads the economic development of the core region of NC. Indeed, some of the most significant value for a startup in NC lies in the ecosystem’s ability to enhance and facilitate scale-up. Krista Covey, President and CEO at FFVCNC points out the clear benefit provided by incubators, quoting Tracy Kitts, former COO of the National Business Incubation Association – now the International Business Innovation Association (INBIA) “After five years, businesses that were nurtured in a business incubator have a survival rate of 87%, Kitts said. By comparison, the survival rate for companies that go it alone without the benefits of incubator support is 44%.” Dr. Hortense Dodo, Co-Founder and President of Ingateygen, an AgTech startup at FFVCNC whose mission is to deliver allergen-free peanuts, says “North Carolina’s Research Triangle Park is a gold mine which can help accelerate the upward evolution of any company.” Ingateygen recently moved to the area because of the ecosystem at RTP and Dr. Dodo explains why “The sheer number of brilliant entrepreneurs, investors, leaders, academicians, Medical Doctors etc … creates a unique and vibrant ecosystem in which any motivated entrepreneur can thrive and be successful.”

But nascent companies cannot survive in a vacuum, and AgTech entrepreneurs are more likely to establish startups only if there is a clear pathway to obtain funding. Within the last 5 years, NC has risen to 4th in the US for AgTech investment, and bucked the trend that saw a decline in VC funding of the top 3 most active regions in the US. Between 2021 and 2022 in NC, venture investment saw substantial gains, led by top local venture firms like Alexandria Venture Investments, Oval Park Capital, Leaps by Bayer, KdT Ventures, Middleland Capital, FMC Ventures, and Syngenta Group Ventures. Karen LeVert, President of AgTechInventures and Venture Partner at Pappas Capital, is pleased with the venture activity underway in the region. She states, “We may be the only region in the world with this density of AgTech investors and more funds are preparing to launch soon. We know funding directly impacts new company growth and companies relocating to the region. These are very exciting times!”

NC stretches from the mid-Atlantic Coast to the Blue Ridge Mountains and by virtue of this diverse geography, NC is the 3rd most diverse agricultural producer in the US, behind only Florida and California [7]. Although RTP is the epicenter of AgTech innovation in NC [8], sporting the majority of activity with much of the state’s Ag Tech ecosystem gravitating to the Triangle, NC boasts multiple AgTech hubs, including Kannapolis, Asheville and western NC, and Wilmington and the Blacklands of eastern NC. The North Carolina Research Campus in Kannapolis houses the David H. Murdock Research Institute, a collaborative effort between 8 universities, as well as companies and entrepreneurs whose focus is on research and development of safer, more nutritious crops, healthier foods and precision nutrition. The campus is also home to the recently opened NC Food Innovation Lab (NCFIL), the only facility in the US with good manufacturing practice capabilities dedicated to supporting plant-based food innovators. Underscoring NC’s presence in the food-processing innovation space, Bühler, one of the world’s largest food processor manufacturers, has chosen Cary, NC as one of their US manufacturing sites because of the legacy of expertise and talent in the region. Thierry Duvanel, Director of Innovation at Buhler Group predicts “We know that our food system will change dramatically in the coming 20 years. Bioprocessing will become the go-to technology to produce the nutrients we need. As a global leader in food processing solutions, Buhler is at the forefront of this transition. Through our presence in the Triangle we can tap into a wealth of expertise in the field, married to a long-standing culture of food production.”

Asheville grew to be the 7th fastest-growing tech hub in the nation last year [9] and being home to NOAA’s Center for Environmental Information, is uniquely primed to attract startups in the climate-smart agriculture arena. Western NC more generally has a unique agricultural footprint, large forestry resources with diverse microclimates and is a nature-based tourist destination brand and market context in which to practice value-added agriculture, and the Blacklands of eastern NC has some of the most productive agricultural soil in the country, thanks to an effort 75 years ago by farmers to transform the Atlantic coastline by draining the cypress swamp there and is one of the premier farm testing regions in the US.

NC is firmly positioned as one of the most impactful AgTech regions in the world. The various elements of the maturing ecosystem continue to work in concert in an engaged and collaborative effort that creates a force multiplier for AgTech startups locating to the area. This deep-rooted farming heritage garners a broad understanding of the agricultural sector’s challenges and needs, and along with NC’s diverse geography, allows for a wide range of agricultural practices from traditional crop farming to specialized horticulture and aquaculture. Ryan Combs at RTRP sums up the region’s strengths and the tenets for the success of an AgTech company: “It’s not just about being the best in the field. You also need to be the best in the lab, the boardroom, the markets, the talent pool, and the cutting edge of agriculture.”

With representation in the state in the subsectors of sustainable and regenerative agriculture, water conservation and weather prediction, automation and CEA, food security and supply chain, agbiotech and crop protection, fin- and insur-tech, nutrition and food processing, livestock and animal health, farm management and precision agriculture, AgTech in NC is growing from strength to strength.

Original Article Source: AgReads

About Authors

Dr. Nick White is a serial entrepreneur and business developer passionate about helping AgTech startups succeed.  Andrea Stevenson Conner is a change agent and strategic relationship builder. In her career spanning 4 countries she champions economic empowerment and the ripple effect it creates in communities. She serves the innovation community as the Ecosystem Development Director at the First Flight Venture Center in Research Triangle Park, NC.


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