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NCBiotech Event Planted RTP Seed for High-Tech Tree Startup

By Allan Maurer, NCBiotech Writer

An appearance at a North Carolina Biotechnology Center event in 2016 convinced the CEO of a high-tech ag biotech startup to move his company from Massachusetts to the Research Triangle.

And it’s been a good move, says Michael Harrington, Ph.D., CEO of Genoverde Biosciences, which is developing a gene-based technology to grow trees with more wood.

He moved Genoverde from Amherst, Massachusetts, to the Triangle after participating in the 2016 Ag Biotech Showcase and experiencing the unique ag ecosystem in North Carolina.

Founded in 2015, Genoverde’s technology is based, in part, on the work of University of Massachusetts plant geneticist Sam Hazen, who is chief scientific officer of the company. His research on the genetic regulation of cell wall growth led to a way to increase the biomass of plants. Hazen received a $713,000 National Science Foundation (NSF) grant for the research.

Genoverde won a one-year $225,000 grant from the NSF’s Small Business Innovation Research program to test its gene-trait approach to bioengineering loblolly pine for higher wood density. It also won $25,000 from the Springfield, Massachusetts-based Valley Venture Mentors Accelerator in May.

Harrington, who is known as “Dr. Mike,” said Genoverde opened a Raleigh office in September and is doing the legwork to find the best location for its research facility and greenhouse space here.

Michael Harrington, Ph.D., CEO of Genoverde Biosciences. -- Genoverde Biosciences photo

Harrington said that networking at the Center’s 2016 Ag Biotech Showcase convinced him the Research Triangle was the place to be in ag biotech. “New England is more focused on biomedicine,” he said, adding that the RTP is better suited to the products he’s developing.

The event, he said, “Sparked conversations about why we need to be here and who are the partners we need to link up with to move this forward. The Biotech Center has been really helpful in facilitating my transition to North Carolina.”

The company’s technology, he explained, “All comes down to understanding the genes that control a plant’s cell wall, which is made of sugars and other components. We use the process that controls sugar production to make the cell wall thicker. Gene regulation is the secret.”

He added, “We do it in a way that targets only the area we want to target. We found the processes of when and where the genes are expressed and how they work together.”

The company already has trees growing in Massachusetts and plans to grow some here as well. “We have leads on greenhouse space,” he said. “Part of the reason I’m here is to set up all of this. We know the technology works. Now we have to do the next steps.”

Harrington, who attended Benedict College in Columbia, S.C., said he enjoys the Southern culture, though “It’s a little warmer here than I’ve been used to for a while. But I definitely will not miss Massachusetts winters.”

He made connections with experts at NCBiotech and with researchers at North Carolina State University, one of the state’s two land grant universities, while here for the 2016 showcase. NCSU is a leader in ag biotech research and forestry.

Harrington said he is talking with NCSU and North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University, the state’s other land grant institution, about potential internship programs. Currently, Harrington is the company’s only full-time employee. Eventually, he said, the company expects to do hiring here.

Harrington, who has been active in supporting other entrepreneurs in Massachusetts, plans to continue that here. “I enjoy helping entrepreneurs strategize on how you navigate to make a business successful. It’s like a game of chess.”

For a deeper look at the science behind Genoverde, see: UMass Amherst Researcher Aims to Improve Pine Biomass Yield.

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