USDA’s corn seed bank may pay dividends
A Kalamazoo firm is finding genetic traits are of interest to the hybrid seed corn industry.
Native Traits Corp., a new bio-technology company in Kalamazoo, has received $500,000 in pre-seed funding for a business developing native genetic traits in corn for the hybrid seed corn industry.
The Bioscience Research and Commercialization Center at Western Michigan University invested $250,000 in Native Traits. Northern Michigan Angels, an investor group in Traverse City, provided an additional $250,000.
The company also received help from the Michigan Small Business Development Center in Kalamazoo.
Formed in 2012 by James Friedrich and John McIntyre, the company’s primary focus is the development of genetic traits that can make corn resistant to drought and extreme temperatures.
The funding will allow Native Traits to advance its proprietary technique — NT Recovery — and accelerate the screening of ancestral strains of maize (corn) for native traits such as drought resistance and cold tolerance. Once identified, each trait is recovered and transferred to commercial varieties via traditional plant-breeding techniques.
No genetic engineering is used in the development of the new varieties. Friedrich, president and CEO, said the transfer of the genes to corn hybrids uses the traditional methods of hybridization in use by seed developers since the 1930s.
“Our research is focused on recovering natural genetic traits from ancestral strains of corn,” he said. “Heirloom and Native American varieties were well-adapted to adverse weather conditions and are an excellent place to look.”
The company’s research and development is primarily based on seeds obtained from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s seed bank in Ames, Iowa, according to Friedrich. The heirloom and Native American varieties of corn in the seed bank “have not been used to any appreciable extent in the hybrid corn industry, and so it’s an untapped resource that no one’s ever really done much with,” said Friedrich.
He said Native Traits has collaborative research contracts with several major seed companies, which he is not permitted to name under terms of the contracts. The research involves test plots from Ohio to Nebraska to confirm the hybrids involving native genetic traits. A seed company that ends up commercializing the genetic traits developed by Native Traits will pay the company a royalty on those sales.
The company works from a former egg processing plant just outside of Kalamazoo in Oshtemo Township, adjacent to its 15-acre research farm. About a half-dozen people work for the company as consultants and part-time employees.
“This location is ideal for our research as it sits in close proximity to Lake Michigan and within an area that is often referred to as a snow belt,” said Friedrich. “This location provides us with the extreme weather conditions we need for testing.”
Friedrich told the Business Journal his company has identified a single genetic trait in corn that gives the plant both greater drought resistance and greater tolerance to cold temperatures.
“It makes for some pretty tough corn,” he said.
Friedrich said he is grateful for the help he received from The Bioscience Research and Commercialization Center and SBDC. BRCC provides start-up and gap funding to promising Michigan-based life sciences and medical device ventures entering the commercialization phase of development.
Friedrich received counseling and hands-on support from business consultants in the Michigan SBDC network, including Sandra Cochrane and John Balbach. He received assistance with developing a business plan, crafting his elevator pitch and making critical introductions to potential investors.
Friedrich also worked with the Southwest Michigan Innovation Center, Northern Michigan Angels in Traverse City, and his landlord, Dave Corning of DACO Properties.
In 2013, Native Traits took second place in the Elevator Pitch Olympics in Madison, Wis. The company won first place in the Elevator Pitch Competition at the 2014 Annual Collaboration for Entrepreneurs event and was named an Industry Innovator Honoree in 2014 by Corp! Magazine. In 1987, Friedrich received the Governor’s Entrepreneurial Excellence Award in North Carolina.
Friedrich holds a B.S. in agronomy from the University of Missouri-Columbia and an M.S. and Ph.D. in agronomy from the University of Wisconsin. His entire career has been spent in agronomy; for 12 years before starting Native Traits, he had a consulting/research firm serving the seed-biotechnology industry.
More information about Native Traits can be found at nativetraits.blogspot.com.
The Michigan SBDC provides counseling, business education, information-based planning and technology commercialization to new and existing businesses throughout Michigan. Headquarters are at the Seidman College of Business at Grand Valley State University, with 11 offices across the state.