Bears, beets ... biofuels? Plant Sensory seeks alternative to corn
Premium content from Baltimore Business Journal by Sarah Gantz, ReporterDate: Friday, December 21, 2012, 6:00am EST - Last Modified: Thursday, December 20, 2012, 9:16pm EST
Plant Sensory Systems LLC has a formula that’s growing plants — and the Baltimore biotechnology company.
Plant Sensory has landed a $1.8 million grant from the U.S. Department of Energyto hone a technology that can be used to get more out of vegetables used for biofuel. The grant could expand a market for the five-person company, which has so far licensed its genetic modification technology largely for use in growing food.
Since launching in 2007, the company has been developing ways to genetically modify seeds that will maximize their growth and make them heartier while minimizing the amount of care they need. For example, the federal grant will be used to test genetic modifications in sugar beets that will increase their sugar content. Such sugar can be used in biofuel. Not only will the beets have more usable resources, but growing them will require less fertilizer and water.
The beets could be used in biofuel instead of corn. They could grow in less fertile land, and the sugar they produce could more easily be converted for biofuel than corn, said Frank Turano, the company’s chief research officer. Turano and his wife,Kathleen Turano, run the company.
Ethanol production has grown about 113 percent over the last five years, from 6.5 billion gallons in 2007 to 13.9 billion gallons in 2011, according to data from the Renewable Fuels Association. A February 2012 report by the association noted that despite the growth, weather and corn prices are two factors that work against profitability. The industry contributed a total of $42.4 billion to the national gross domestic product in 2011, according to that report.
Biotech seeds are still a niche industry, said Bjorn Frogner, the entrepreneur-in-residence at UMBC’s Clean Energy Technology Incubator,
“I wouldn’t say it’s a growing market, but it’s a growing need,” Frogner said.
Farmers are increasingly seeking for ways to maximize their crops. The fact that the company’s technology can also be used to grow plants used in biofuel is an added bonus, he said.
Plant Sensory has previously licensed its technology for companies that want to grow plants genetically modified to better withstand drought and hot weather, which are valuable characteristics to farmers in regions with seasonal weather fluctuations.
“The bottom line is all companies want more — either bigger plants or more seed — it depends on what their crop is,” said Kathleen Turano.
The three-year grant for beets is only one sign of growth at Plant Sensory Systems. The company raised $157,000 in 2012 and has raised a total of $607,000. In 2013, Plant Sensory plans to launch a $1.5 million fundraising campaign.
To handle the new work associated with the grant and other projects at the company, Plant Sensory has plans to hire at least four more scientists within the next four months.
The company is not yet profitable, but is able to cover its expenses, Kathleen Turano said. She declined to give specifics about the company’s sales totals. Plant Sensory is based theUniversity of Maryland, Baltimore County’s bwtech@UMBC Research & Technology Park.
Alan Kinnersley, a retired plant biotech scientist, is among the company’s top investors. Since 2009, he has invested about $450,000 in the company.
Giving the Turanos money was an easy decision for Kinnersley, who used to accomplish the same genetic modifications in plants as Plant Sensory by using a spray on the plants’ leaves.
“I’ve seen the technology work in the field and understood what they’d come up with was a much more sophisticated way of doing what we were already doing and making money from,” said Kinnersley, of East Lansing, Mich.