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Bullish on Ag Tech, Alexandria Creating R&D ‘Mega Campus’ in RTP

By Barry Teater, NCBiotech Writer

Architect's rendering of the completed Alexandria Center for AgTech – RTP. -- Photos courtesy of Alexandria Real Estate Equities Inc.

Already a major landlord in the Research Triangle Park, California-based Alexandria Real Estate Equities is developing a unique multi-tenant research and development campus in the Research Triangle Park to drive North Carolina’s global leadership in agricultural biotechnology.

The campus, called the Alexandria Center for AgTech – RTP, is located at 3054 East Cornwallis Road on the former site of Syngenta, which consolidated its operations at a new campus elsewhere in the Park. Through an affiliate, Alexandria acquired the 20-acre Syngenta site with five buildings and greenhouses for $8.75 million, according to tax records.

The first phase of the project is to redevelop the site into 175,000 rentable square feet of office, laboratory and greenhouse facilities and a “highly curated amenities center designed to foster innovation, drive productivity and enhance collaboration,” Alexandria said in a news release. Amenities will include a conference and event space, a fitness and wellness center, a “healthy restaurant concept,” open green space and an on-site garden.

The campus already has two initial tenants: AgTech Accelerator Corp., an Alexandria-sponsored incubator that discovers, develops, funds and manages new ag tech companies, and Boragen, an Accelerator-backed company that is developing next-generation fungicides for plant agriculture.

Alexandria's Joel Marcus

Other companies are lined up to move into the campus, along with “a laundry list of people who have expressed interest, so we’re pretty optimistic,” said Joel Marcus, chairman, CEO and co-founder of Alexandria Real Estate Equities and chairman and founder of AgTech Accelerator Corp.

“There is no place for high-quality ag tech companies to move into plug-and-play, turnkey R&D facilities coupled with greenhouses,” Marcus said in a telephone interview. “It doesn’t exist in a multi-tenant fashion with an amenitized campus. It doesn’t exist either in the RTP region or frankly across the country.”

Part of a ‘mega campus’

The AgTech Center is near another campus in RTP that Alexandria bought in 2015 at 6 Davis Drive, the former home of the now-defunct Hamner Institutes for Health Sciences. That 56-acre campus, called the Alexandria Center for Science, Technology and Agriculture, is an incubator for late-stage growth companies.

The campus is already filled with tenants but will be expanded as soon as the AgTech Center on Cornwallis Road is fully leased, probably in about a year, Marcus said.

The development of both campuses will form a million-square-foot “mega campus” for ag tech and other bioscience research and development.

“We are fostering the next generation of companies and technologies that are essential to the future growth of the ag tech sector," Marcus said.

The global market for agricultural products has more than doubled over the last decade, Alexandria noted, and continued growth is expected as the world’s population heads toward 9 billion people by 2050 and a rising middle class shifts to protein-rich diets.

RTP is the ‘ideal location’

Alexandria said it chose RTP as “the ideal location” for the AgTech Center because the Triangle region is home to several of the world's leading industry crop protection and seed companies, renowned universities, skilled talent and an expanding pool of ag-focused venture capital.

Rendering shows proposed entryway to Alexandria Center for AgTech – RTP.

“The clustering of the ag tech industry has become a pretty real phenomenon there in the Park over the last number of years,” Marcus said. The North Carolina Biotechnology Center has been directly involved in building the cluster through corporate recruitment and retention, funding of commercially useful academic research and entrepreneurial companies, building partnerships, and other activities. Most of the ag tech companies in Alexandria’s facilities have been involved with some aspect of NCBiotech outreach.

Alexandria was founded on the belief that innovative companies are most successful “when positioned in the epicenter of the world's top ecosystems and in close proximity to world-renowned academic institutions, cutting-edge scientific and managerial talent and sophisticated risk capital.”

Increasingly, large life science companies are leaving their “big siloed locations” in suburban areas for more dynamic urban R&D environments that offer more collaborations and amenities, Marcus said. “That’s just been basically the megatrend of the last, say, seven years in biotech and pharma.”

Said Marcus: “You can put a lot of money into facilities, but if they don’t come together and cluster in an amenitized, collaborative and innovative core, stand-alone isolated facilities in today’s R&D world simply don’t work. And that’s been proven time and time again.”

He pointed to the success of the company’s nearly 1 million-square-foot Alexandria Center for Life Science in New York, a city rich with amenities, infrastructure, venture capital and potential collaborators. The facility became fully leased within 12 months, and its tenants now employ 3,000 people.

20 years in RTP

Alexandria, founded in 1994 in Pasadena, Calif., is traded on the New York Stock Exchange. It has a total market capitalization of $14.5 billion.

Alexandria is the first real estate investment trust (REIT) to specialize in life science and technology campuses. It focuses on top innovation centers including Greater Boston, San Francisco, New York City, San Diego, Seattle, Maryland and the Research Triangle. 

At the end of this year’s first quarter, it owned 199 properties in North America encompassing 28.2 million square feet.

Alexandria entered the Research Triangle market in 1997. In the 20 years since then, it has acquired and developed more than 1 million rentable square feet in or near the Park – space that is nearly 98 percent leased to various life science companies.

Ag tech tenants in or near the Park range from multinational corporations such as Bayer Crop Science, Medicago and Novozymes to growth and early-stage companies such as Benson Hill Biosystems and Mimetics.

Alexandria also has a venture capital arm, Alexandria Venture Investments, which led a strategic investment syndicate to create the RTP-based AgTech Accelerator in 2016.

The Accelerator has raised an investment fund of nearly $25 million with the potential for hundreds of millions more with co-investments from the syndicate’s member firms, Marcus said.

The syndicate includes ARCH Venture Partners, Bayer, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, Elanco Animal Health, Flagship Pioneering, Mountain Group Capital, Syngenta Ventures and two North Carolina firms: Hatteras Venture Partners and Pappas Capital.

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