Issue Date: April 26, 2004
TURNING PLANT GENES INTO CORPORATE CASH
Amaethon--pronounced a-MY-e-thon--is a god of agriculture in Celtic mythology. It's also the name of a new technology-transfer company, formed last November by the University of York, in England, and venture-capitalists IP2IPO.
Amaethon was established as a stand-alone firm to commercialize the research of the Centre for Novel Agricultural Products (CNAP), a part of the University of York biology department devoted to plant genetics.
The university owns two-thirds of Amaethon and has granted the firm 25-year exclusive rights to CNAP's research. IP2IPO holds the remaining third, following a $2 million investment; the venture-capital firm has also committed roughly $1.4 million to spin-off companies based on CNAP research.
U.K.-based IP2IPO focuses on moving university-generated intellectual property into the commercial sphere. For example, last month, it launched an initial public offering of Offshore Hydrocarbon Mapping, an offshoot of the U.K.'s University of Southampton that finds underwater oil and gas.
The hookup with the University of York was the culmination of work by Graham P. Howe in his position as commercial director of CNAP. Howe--whose background prior to joining CNAP in 2002 includes stints at ICI, Chirotech (now part of Dow Chemical), and Clariant's Life Science Molecules unit--is now chief executive officer of Amaethon.
In existence only six months, Amaethon--which has a full-time staff of four--already has several commercial contracts under its corporate belt.
Earlier this month, Amaethon signed a nonexclusive research agreement in forestry biotechnology with ArborGen, Summerville, S.C., based on a group of genes discovered at CNAP. ArborGen itself is a partnership of biotech researchers and plant scientists from a number of research-based institutions in the U.S. and New Zealand.
As Maud A. Hinchee, chief technology officer at ArborGen, puts it, "ArborGen is pleased to be able to apply [CNAP's] research discoveries toward improving plantation trees grown for the forestry industry."
And in March, Amaethon agreed to collaborate with Oxford Chemicals Ltd. in flavor and fragrance chemicals. Under the agreement, Oxford Chemicals--part of U.K. specialty chemicals company Yule Catto--will cofund a proof-of-principle research project, to be conducted by CNAP, aimed at creating new enzyme-based routes to aroma chemicals (C&EN, March 29, page 12).
The collaboration will apply biocatalysts derived from proprietary CNAP genes to the synthesis of aroma chemicals identified by Oxford Chemicals. Oxford will have exclusive rights in the area of flavors and fragrances; Amaethon will retain the right to use the research in all other applications.
At the company's official launch last month, Howe noted that Amaethon has four main functions: developing projects, offering research services, licensing, and coordinating spin-off companies.
It seeks industry-funded research projects at CNAP, particularly in analytical glycobiology--glycoproteins, polysaccharides, and other glycoconjugates. Such industry funding, in turn, helps support the research chairs at CNAP.
A VARIETY OF technologies fill Amaethon's licensing quiver. Its work in polyunsaturated fatty acids biosynthesis, for example, exploits the genes encoding enzymes responsible for synthesis of these compounds. Another licensing project involves a nucleic acid molecule in the spider Euprosthenops spidroin. The molecule encodes a protein present in the spider's major dragline silk, which shows, according to Amaethon, better strength, elasticity, and resistance to solvents than most dragline silks from other species.
All of the company's work focuses on what Howe calls the "microbial cell factories" within plants. Products of these factories can include fuels, plastics and bioplastics, fine chemicals, pharmaceutical active ingredients, food additives, cosmetic ingredients, vitamins, colorants, and aroma components. They all contribute to what he sees as a market with considerable growth potential.
For example, the global market for transgenic crops reached $3 billion in 2002 and is expected to hit $25 billion by 2010.
Amaethon is also keen to encourage strategic partnerships, Howe says. For example, CNAP has established a phytochemistry partnership, the Noble Laboratory, with the Plant Biology Division of the Samuel Roberts Noble Foundation in Ardmore, Okla. The foundation is providing slightly more than $2 million in funding for the laboratory, located at CNAP. Richard A. Dixon, a professor at the Noble Foundation (in Ardmore), is CNAP's chair of phytochemical genomics and codirector of the laboratory with professor Pierre Broun, who is CNAP's chair of metabolic engineering.
In U.K. academia, argues David Norwood, CEO of IP2IPO, "most people who possess the deep intellectual property--the great ideas--are hopeless at selling themselves to us, the venture capitalists and merchant bankers. Others have been very good at 'selling'--they have raised millions and lost it all doing silly things. It has given genuine academics a bad name.
"IP2IPO wants to help its partners lead the way," he says, "to create value by exploiting ideas."
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