Agriculture has long been Delaware’s single largest land use, so it’s no surprise that the sector is a strong focus for First State innovators. A potent mix of startups, researchers and established agribusiness companies works to protect the crops that Delaware’s farmers cultivate and to ensure agriculture has a bright future.
A prime example is Corteva Agriscience. On June 1, Delaware became the headquarters for this new company, which is a freestanding unit of DowDuPont, has more than 3,000 employees worldwide and comes with a deep portfolio of products. That portfolio includes the Pioneer seed line, which has traditionally been an important resource to Delaware farmers.
“As we continue to drive our business forward through innovation to maintain our robust new product pipeline, we are proud to have a significant presence in Wilmington, where groundbreaking science and research has long been a part of the fabric of our community,” says Corteva CEO James C. Collins Jr. “We now have the focused resources necessary to invest in the future of agriculture. … At the same time, we will continue to be a supportive corporate citizen as we build a global agriculture leader for the future.”
Much of Corteva’s business is in crop seeds and crop protection chemicals. In late February, the nascent company announced the U.S. launch of Enlist E3 soybeans for 2019 planting, calling it one of the largest soybean technology systems ever launched. A major advantage of Enlist E3 soybeans is that they are tolerant to newer and more effective weed-killing herbicides, thus allowing farmers to have increased yields and overall better crop quality. This is especially important news to Delaware farmers, as the state produced more than 8 million bushels of soybeans in 2017.
Corteva also has announced a joint plan to use more than 400 drones to help its customers do real-time field analysis of their crops. In partnership with a company called DroneDeploy, drone operators can survey a 160-acre field in less than 15 minutes, identifying variations in plant and soil health. This will allow farmers to implement proper solutions to any problems discovered.
Higher Yields Through Gene-Editing
At the smaller end of the startup spectrum, Hajime Sakai sits in a quiet office outside the laboratories of the company he now heads, Napigen Inc. It’s located within the Delaware Innovation Space on the campus of the former DuPont Experimental Station. “I can see the building where I used to work,” he says, referring to the 19 years he was employed by DuPont Pioneer, most recently as head of genetic discovery and agronomic trait R&D, before leaving the company during a 2016 downsizing. “Some of the equipment we have here at the Innovation Space comes from my old labs.”
Sakai and three co-founders from California started Napigen after finding unique solutions for using the new CRISPR gene-editing technology in crop plants. “The other three had full-time jobs,” Sakai laughs, “while I was getting over the shock of not having one. But we knew that CRISPR was not being used to edit mitochondria DNA, and we came up with an idea on how to do it.”
According to Sakai, there is an unmet need for hybrid crop plants that will raise yields to levels not previously achieved. “This is not a GM (genetically modified procedure), and it will be especially beneficial in wheat and other crop plants that are currently mostly non-hybrids,” he adds. “We had the Green Revolution” — which promoted the use of pesticides, fertilizers and specialty seeds — “and we think this will be the new revolution in yields.”
Sakai says Napigen has been getting helpful business advice locally as well as help in applying for federal grants. “The Delaware BioScience Association has been doing various things for us at a discount,” he says, noting that the company is now a finalist in an international competition awarded in association with the Delaware Sustainable Chemistry Alliance (DESCA).
“We’ve now completed our proof of concept and are working on our dossier to register with the federal government,” Sakai says. “If all goes well, we will commercialize our wheat lines in around two years.” Already, the University of Delaware is providing greenhouse space for Napigen’s wheat test plots.
Why are Sakai and Napigen in Delaware when his partners are in the San Francisco Bay area? “Unless you already have a product, you get lost out there among all those companies,” he says. “Here, people are always willing to reach out.”
Another DuPont alumnus leaving his mark in the sector is Andrew Ragone, who was with DuPont for 35 years before starting Spekciton Biosciences in 2017. The company uses measurement science and technology to help farmers and scientists understand plant, water and soil health. It can also help detect early signs that plants are stressed or not viable.
Spekciton is addressing a pressing problem. “The productivity of our food system is at risk from climate change,” Ragone says. “There’s a lot of research going on to engineer crops to withstand stress. There’s a lot of energy around remediating contamination.”
Researchers Work on Robotic Solutions
At the University of Delaware, plant science and engineering faculty and students are working together to create a range of robots that can do crop evaluations that would be almost impossible for humans to perform. “The application of robotics and automation to precision agriculture brings up an array of interesting research problems for us,” says Bert Tanner, a mechanical engineering professor.
For example, Tanner and James Adkins, associate scientist at the UD Cooperative Extension, are co-principal investigators on a seed grant from the College of Agriculture and Natural Resources for a robotics project involving a platform of sensors mounted to an existing mobile irrigation system. The technologies include a surveying system that uses laser light to map the shape and structure of plants as well as sensors to measure physiological aspects of the plants, such as how efficiently they convert sunlight to energy.
At Delaware State University’s College of Agriculture, Science and Technology, research focus areas include pest management, investigating sustainable cash crops, and ameliorating water contamination caused by large-scale animal operations.
Major Companies Launch Innovative Products
The FMC Corp., which now operates DuPont’s former Stine Research Center, has introduced a new crop protection product for soybeans, corn, peanuts, wheat and sugar beets in time for the 2019 growing season. It is called Lucento, a fungicide that provides long-lasting preventive and curative properties for a wide spectrum of foliar diseases.
Merck Animal Health, which has manufacturing and research facilities in Millsboro, recently introduced Innovax-ND-IBD in the U.S. after a successful launch in Europe. The vaccine protects against three highly transmittable diseases in poultry — infectious bursal disease, Newcastle disease and Marek’s disease.
The Innovax line has a distinct advantage over previous vaccines, which had to infect chickens with a controlled dose of a virus to get an immune response. “That takes a lot of energy for the birds,” says Scott Patey, an associate director at Merck Animal Health. Innovax uses only a protein from the portion of the virus that causes the infection, triggering an immune response without an infection, he says. Another advantage from a poultry farmer’s perspective is that Innovax can be used to inoculate chicks before they hatch, whereas live vaccines may require a booster shot on live chickens — a daunting logistical challenge, says Patey.
Poultry Companies Thrive in Delaware
In 2018, poultry company Allen Harim made a major commitment to its future in Delaware, opening a new corporate headquarters near Millsboro. The company has also invested in clean energy. In fact, in 2018, Allen Harim used savings from a newly installed solar project to launch a college scholarship for children of employees and contract growers.
Perdue Farms, another major presence in Delaware’s poultry industry, has been an industry leader in the antibiotic-free movement. It also was recently recognized for its leadership in gender diversity by 2020 Women on Boards, a national organization working to boost female representation on corporate boards. Five of Perdue’s nine board members are women.