Improving Crops; Saving Energy

Daphne Preuss, PhD

On August 20, Chromatin—a company that grew out of research at the University of Chicago—announced that it had entered into a technological alliance and license agreement with Bayer CropScience.

Under the agreement, Bayer CropScience has obtained non-exclusive rights to use Chromatin’s technology to introduce Bayer’s high-value trait genes into cotton. Bayer CropScience also obtained options to expand this program to other crops.

“We look forward to working with Bayer Crop Science to develop the next generation of crops with high-value yield and quality traits,” said Daphne Preuss, PhD, CEO of Chromatin, which she co-founded in 2000 with two post doctoral students.

Chromatin is now working with three of the six major global agribusiness firms. In 2007, it joined with Monsanto in a three-year research program to evaluate and develop Chromatin’s gene-stacking technology in Monsanto’s core research crops. Also in 2007, it signed an agreement giving Syngenta Biotechnology non-exclusive rights to use its gene-stacking technology for trait genes in corn and soybeans. And in June 2009, Chromatin signed an agreement giving Syngenta Biotechnology exclusive rights to its gene-stacking technology for trait genes in all plants from the genus Saccharum, including commercial sugar cane and energy cane.

“We’re pleased to have multiple collaborations with companies that routinely bring agricultural technologies into the marketplace,” Preuss said.

“This is a remarkable achievement for a young company,” said Alan Thomas, Director of UChicagoTech, the University’s Office of Technology and Intellectual Property. “It’s a testament to the quality of Chromatin’s technology and the expertise of its management team.”

Technology has broad application

UChicagoTech licensed a patented minichromosome technology to Chromatin that Preuss and colleagues developed at the University. Bolstered by additional patents, this technology allows entire chromosomes to be designed and incorporated into plants. This enables rapid delivery of multiple genetic traits; accelerates product development; reduces production costs; and facilitates novel plant-based products.

Initially, Chromatin targeted traditional crops: corn, soy, cotton, and canola. Now it is entering the bioenergy feedstock market where the addition of traits can improve crop and yield, and allow digestion of cellulosic fiber.

“Work underway at Chromatin and in our partner companies has the potential to improve crop yields and reduce both energy costs and dependence on fossil fuels,” Preuss said.

The privately held Chromatin, with 25 employees, has raised $24 million in capital. Preuss, who is on leave from the University, enjoys working in the business environment, where research is locked in on the needs of the company and “where we can turn on a dime,” she said.

Business people are good at defining precise goals, deliverables and milestones, said Gregory Copenhaver, PhD, Associate Professor at the University of North Carolina and a co-founder of Chromatin who continues to advise the company on scientific and intellectual property issues. “Academic science is oriented toward individual goals while science at Chromatin is acutely focused on group goals.”

Still, Preuss emphasizes commonalities. “People talk about the gulf between science and business, but it’s more a communications gap than anything else,” she said. “Academicians think in terms of grants and publications; business people in terms of deals and revenue. But these are just different metrics for measuring success.”

To overcome the communications gap, Preuss suggests scientists interested in commercializing their research learn the language of business. “The University has a great business school, so take some courses there and learn how to articulate goals and objectives in business terms. That’s the only way to find financing and convert research into something that benefits industry and society.”

“Don’t be afraid to try developing your idea or technology,” Copenhaver added. “It’s a rewarding experience that will broaden your professional network, stimulate your thinking and open doors that you didn’t even know were there. At the same time, realize that such work is a serious commitment of time and effort.”

By Greg Borzo

*UChicago Tech is now the Tech Commercialization team at the Polsky Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation in recognition of a $50M gift from Michael Polsky in 2016 to expanded the Polsky Center in order to unify and enhance UChicago’s leading venture creation initiatives. Learn more about this transformational gift. >>

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