NIAB broadens its commercial focus
The National Institute of Agricultural Botany (NIAB) is to use a £5 million award from the NIAB Trust to lay the foundations for a profit-hungry company capable of developing the new and groundbreaking products it believes will be central to the UK’s future economy.
The group will use the strength of NIAB’s 80-year’s old brand and its reputation for world class independent research to strike partnerships in drug discovery, smart breeding and transgenic biology with the goal of producing new drug targets and non-food crops for use in biofuels and other areas.
The company has already formed partnerships with leading international plant science groups such as the John Innes Centre in Norwich and Mexico’s CIMMYT, a non-profit research and training centre committed to improving livelihoods in the developing world and with direct links to about 100 countries.
Forged under the leadership of Professor Wayne Powell, the new strategy marks a departure for the world-renowned plant science research organisation, whose work until now has been more commonly associated with public service, with traditional core activities focusing on variety characterisation and evaluation, seed testing, operating official seed certification schemes and training.
“What the National Institute of Agricultural Botany is doing is central to the UK,” said Powell.
“The Trust is investing in new capabilities and that happens to be at NIAB.
“Agriculture is a central part of the bio-economy. What is needed are new products which are capable of fulfilling a set of three requirements, they have to represent what the consumer wants, what society wants in terms of environmental impact and they need to be produced in a manner that generates – that dirty word – profits.”
This engagement with “pre-competitive plant breeding” is intended to produce a portfolio of novel traits targeted at specific end-uses, which can be harnessed and passed on for exploitation at commercial plant breeding companies.
“The money is important, but it is not a huge amount and we will not be able to do everything,” said Prof Powell.
“Our number one priority is pre-breeding, then non-food work from existing and novel crops. Third is to bring in new blood, two appointments of studentships and some PhDs.
”Within these fields, the focus will fall on environmentally and nutritionally relevant, strategic traits in line with the needs of UK government and society.
“We need a different range of skills and mindset to create new products that can provide a health benefit,” said Powell.
“Products, for instance, that do not cause diffuse pollution, like the toxic waste that comes out of an animals backside due to certain feeds.”
NIAB is already producing important work in these areas under contract including the assessment of the biomass potential of certain crops for Defra and a major role in the Europe’s largest GM research project, CO-EXTRA, which is intended to provide the EU’s agriculture and food industries with the basis to make decisions on their future use of GM farming methods.
Powell joined NIAB as chief executive 18 months ago. Initially he spent his time consolidating the company’s core businesses before he moved to identify new areas to push into.
“To look over a horizon of five years we need to look back first. NIAB has moved away from public sector dependence. We have a core business that is built around contract research and services, added Powell.
“NIAB has a great brand and track record to succeed in the future. We need to focus on two elements: A really relevant research capability and translating science.
“Targeting what is happening at universities and in the economy. We need selective partnerships and we will need to have a product. NIAB will be embedded in the knowledge and wealth economy.
“The plan is to use the money from the Trust to kick-start this side of the business. We then hope to raise more money to develop it further.”
This has already begun with a £1.4 million award from the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC) to supplement the Trust’s amount.
Lying at the heart of some of the company’s new ventures will be a focus on transgenic biology – GM crops – an unavoidable consequence of the rapidly growing demand for alternative energy sources according to NIAB.
“It is inconceivable that in time GM crops will not be grown in this country,” said Prof Powell.
“Bioenergy will be very important and our transgenic capability will be used for research purposes initially and then in partnerships to create new products.
“On the side of non-food crops we intend to identify new compounds that have implications for drug delivery in the fight against Malaria. There are also novel compounds with anticancer properties. We intend to progress this work in partnership with key organisations with pharma expertise. We can use smart-breeding technology to grow crops in the appropriate conditions to produce these.”