News Article

Monsanto acquires Duke agrobiotech spinoff
Date: Jun 12, 2013
Source: bizjournals ( click here to go to the source)

Featured firm in this article: Grassroots Biotechnology Inc of Morrisville, NC

A downtown Durham-based Duke spinoff has been acquired by agrobiotech Monsanto (NYSE: MON) after a long-term partnership between the two companies.

Grassroots Biotechnology, fronted by CEO Doug Eisner, was nabbed by Monsanto for an undisclosed sum earlier this month. The company, which developed a gene expression platform and other agricultural technologies to complement Monsanto's portfolio, was founded in 2007 by Eisner and Duke's Dr. Philip Benfey.

Right at the beginning, Eisner saw the dollar opportunities in a big agriculture partnership.

"We started going to agbiotechs to see if we could get a collaboration going," he explains, adding that Monsanto was quickly hooked, leading to a partnership that propelled the small company's growth. At the time of the acquisition, Grassroots listed 25 employees.

The partnership, originally intended to last three years, aimed to source genetic elements that could enable crops to increase yields. Specifically, Grassroots sourced what are called "promoters," segments of DNA that determine when and where a genetic trait is expressed within a plant. In 2009, Monsanto said it would use the promoters in a broad range of crops, including corn, soy, cotton and canola.

That partnership was extended in 2011.

Eisner couldn't be specific about the outcome of the collaboration, but said that it was in play in Monsanto's research pipeline.

"The plant biotech world is somewhat like the drug world in that it takes more than 10 years, many dollars to get things into the field," he says. "Our products are somewhere along that pipeline and will eventually be commercialized."

A cash breakdown of the deal was not disclosed, but research employees were transferred to Monsanto as part of the deal. Eisner has exited the company, and Benfey is staying on in an advisory capacity.

Grants, Eisner explains, are what really propelled the company from the beginning, including a National Science Foundation grant of $150,000, which was matched with a $100,000 grant from the state. That money allowed the company to establish itself and seek the partnership that eventually meant a big biotech buy, he explains.

It's his understanding that research employees would remain downtown, at least in the short term. Monsanto also has a facility in Research Triangle Park.

Monsanto released the following statement in response to our query about the acquisition:

"After a successful multi-year collaboration, GrassRoots Biotechnology, Inc. has been acquired by Monsanto. GrassRoots focuses on gene expression and other agricultural technologies that will complement Monsanto's biotechnology research and development work. All research employees will be offered positions within Monsanto. Other terms of the acquisition were not disclosed."