Clemson-bred company puts down roots in Pee Dee
Carolina Seed Systems relocating to Florence
The seed of an idea that sprouted from Clemson’s Advanced Plant Technology (APT) Program is blooming where it was planted near the university’s Pee Dee Research and Education Center.
Carolina Seed Systems is relocating from Greenville to co-locate with Clemson’s research station in Florence — one of six strategically located across the state’s distinct soil and climate regions — to serve growers along the Interstate 95 corridor and rural South Carolina. A spinoff of the APT Program, Carolina Seed Systems is working to address a lack of feed grain hybrid crop development and a regional feed shortage.
“This is the vision we’ve had for a spinoff company and we’re just executing that vision and partnering with Clemson to advance the land-grant mission by moving to a region where our stakeholders are located,” said Carolina Seed Systems founder and Chief Executive Officer Zachary Brenton.
That transition is being funded by a $10 million award to Steve Kresovich, director of the APT program and lead principal investigator on the project, through the Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy (ARPA-E), as part of a program called Transportation Energy Resources from Renewable Agriculture to prioritize the commercialization of the science and products.
Kresovich said the transformation of the project from a concept into a tangible product is in keeping with “the truth breath” of Clemson’s land-grant mission to provide unbiased, research-based information to improve the quality of life for all South Carolinians.
“Our goal is to do good science at Clemson and provide the foundation for those companies, particularly Carolina Seed Systems, to advance and serve the crop agriculture needs in the southeastern United States, but most importantly to have a positive effect on the rural economy in the I-95 corridor,” he said.
An agency in the U.S. Department of Energy, ARPA-E is charged with overcoming long-term and high-risk technological barriers in the development of energy technologies.
Krish Doraiswamy, ARPA-E technology-to-market adviser, said the agency focuses on transformational energy projects that can be meaningfully advanced with a small amount of funding over a defined period of time.
“Academic entrepreneurship is a key driver of energy innovation,” he said. “ARPA-E has funded hundreds of projects at colleges and universities across America, advancing high-potential, high-impact energy technologies that are too early for private-sector investment. The project with Clemson is an example of one such initiative.”
Grain sorghum is a cereal grain that is often used as a substitute for corn and feeding rations in the animal industry. Because of its drought tolerance and nutrient efficiency, grain sorghum can lower farmers’ seed cost and increases their profitability.
Doraiswamy said renewable energy through biofuels is a particular area of focus for ARPA-E. Significant improvements to the productivity and efficiency of biofuel crops are needed to produce the large volume of biomass needed for economic biofuel production, and that’s where Clemson can help, according to Doraiswamy.
The metaphorical seed for Carolina Seed Systems was planted when, as graduate students in the APT Program, Brenton and Richard Boyles evaluated grain sorghum characteristics and began working to exploit natural variations in the plant’s genetic material to determine what genes are responsible for adapting it to the climate and production systems in the Southeast.
APT is a key part of an overall effort at Clemson to optimize plants for production for all agricultural stakeholders — from large-scale producers to small-scale landowners who work with heirloom varieties for restaurants, brewers, distillers and more.
After completing their Ph.D. work, Boyles took a job as an assistant professor at the Pee Dee research station, while Brenton left to pursue Carolina Seed Systems, which licensed the intellectual property from Clemson through the Clemson University Research Foundation.
Now, the company has taken the next step in bringing its product to the marketplace by teaming up with Bloomfield Robotics, the Robotics Institute at Carnegie Mellon University and Hi Fidelity Genetics. The goal of the proposed research and development program is to develop superior crop hybrids by fully leveraging the extensive global sorghum gene pool.
The project consists of two overarching themes. First, the team will develop a new crop improvement paradigm through advances in robotics, sensors, computing and genomics that they will then share with the public. Next, they will use what they learn for sorghum crop improvement and commercialization.
Smithfield Foods Chief Science & Technology Officer Terry Coffey, also serving as a scientific adviser for Carolina Seed Systems, said one of the objectives of his team is to identify and evaluate feed ingredients that can be produced closer to mid-Atlantic food animal producers. Currently, most feed ingredients are produced in other regions of the country and shipped great distances to the East Coast. For example, the Carolinas import about 300 million bushels of grain each year from the Midwest.
Carolina Seed Systems seeks to fill that void, in part, by delivering to farmers regionally adapted grain sorghum hybrids, which Coffey said is a crop that has greater tolerance for dry conditions that often occur in the area.
Kresovich said that locating the project along the I-95 corridor and in proximity to the Pee Dee REC shows Brenton’s commitment to the mission of the APT program: to improve agriculture in South Carolina by using a variety of technologies to advance crop agriculture in the state.
“Zach, with the company’s formation, has had the opportunity and has had discussions with people who would love to have him at Research Triangle Park in North Carolina or potentially in St. Louis at their science and technology park that’s oriented towards agriculture and with people in California, but he and Rick Boyles altruistically have been committed to this concept,” he said, “and probably against better judgment for making money in the short term, they want to have it in Florence and to be a homegrown company that contributes to this region rather than to sort of start it up and fly away.”