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Friday, March 15, 2013

UNCP’s BioAg Symposium turning ideas into businesses

From turning algae into biodiesel to using nematodes as organic pesticides, the 4th Annual Farm Bureau BioAg Symposium at UNC Pembroke revealed the entrepreneurial side of biotechnology.

Talking Biotech - Dr. Len Holmes, director of the UNCP Biotechnology Center, with Brunswick Community College instructors Dr. Kim Jones and Michelle Sabaoun and, on the right, Rebecca Westbrooks of Southeastern Community College

Talking Biotech - Dr. Len Holmes, director of the UNCP Biotechnology Center, with Brunswick Community College instructors Dr. Kim Jones and Michelle Sabaoun and, on the right, Rebecca Westbrooks of Southeastern Community College

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Powered in part by a grant from the Robeson County Farm Bureau, UNCP’s Biotechnology Research and Training Center demonstrated its reach into agricultural science and its outreach to the region’s community colleges and corporate research labs.

Robeson Farm Bureau Agency manager Matt Adams welcomed approximately 75 people on Feb. 7 in the Regional Center at COMtech.

“The Farm Bureau truly understands the importance of agriculture to the county, region and state,” Adams said. “We’re proud to support agriculture and the research here at UNCP’s Biotechnology Center.”

The theme of this year’s Farm Bureau BioAg Symposium was “Biotechnology and Entrepreneurship in Agriculture.”

Mark Stevens would turn waste into energy as a research associate with Novozymes, the world’s largest producer of enzymes. Stevens is a 2008 UNCP graduate who worked in the university’s biodiesel program as an undergraduate.

“Cellulose is the most abundant and renewable compound on earth,” Stevens said. “We’re working to turn municipal waste, wood byproducts and agricultural waste into biodiesel and ethanol.”

The company uses enzymes and microorganisms in a fermentation process to break down woody cell walls and unleash energy. The research is scaling up from the lab to production. To prove his point, Stevens drove an ethanol-powered automobile to the conference.

“We are in the enzyme production business, so we want this industry to take off,” Stevens said. “It saves landfill space and produces less carbon than oil.”

LANDFILL POWER

Southeastern Community College is using methane from a retired Columbus County landfill to power its agricultural research program in Columbus County. Rebecca Westbrooks, coordinator of SCC’s Agricultural Biotechnology Program, gave an update on their program to micropropagate Venus’ flytraps, a plant unique to southeastern North Carolina.

Talking Science – from left: Devang N. Upadhyay, a research scientist from India who is doing research at UNCP’s Biotechnology Center; Floyd Inman, a research associate at the center; Mark Stevens, a research associate with Novozymes; and UNCP Farm Bureau Scholar Matt Bowen.

Talking Science – from left: Devang N. Upadhyay, a research scientist from India who is doing research at UNCP’s Biotechnology Center; Floyd Inman, a research associate at the center; Mark Stevens, a research associate with Novozymes; and UNCP Farm Bureau Scholar Matt Bowen.

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With two new commercial greenhouses and 15 wells to tap methane for power, the program is “looking at how to create agricultural industries,” Westbrooks said. “We will use one greenhouse, and the other will serve as a small business incubator that we hope some of our graduates will use.”

ALGAE POWER

Brunswick Community College would turn algae into energy, said Dr. Kim Jones and Michelle Sabaoun, a pair of science instructors. They talked about the challenges and business prospects.

“Algae is the most prolific plant on earth,” Jones said. “It’s renewable, produces oxygen from CO2, and doesn’t compete with farm products.

“Our models indicate that 10,000 gallons of biodiesel can be produced per acre per year,” the scientist said. “There is no doubt about the potential, but it will require research to make it economically feasible.”

In 2007, Dr. Jones created a company, Alganomics, to develop commercial projects related to algae.

NEMATODE PROJECT

Floyd Inman, a 2010 graduate and former Farm Bureau Research Scholar at UNCP, is producing nematodes in the Biotechnology Center’s labs, and he is working on a business plan.

“We have moved from theory to practice with a product we call BraveGuard,” Inman said. “We are working on optimization of production and cost.”

Beneficial nematodes can serve as natural pesticides with little or no negative environmental impact, and they could become organic farmers’ best friends, according to Inman.

“There is a lot of research going on in these labs,” Inman said.

A lot of UNCP undergraduates and others are getting into the act.

BEE PROJECT

Dr. Reginald Oxendine Jr. of Pembroke has developed a taste for honey, and he has taken over direction of UNCP’s Honey Bee Research Station, located on 25 acres in the COMtech business park. Dr. Oxendine talked about the challenges of beekeeping.

“I adopted two hives three years ago, and it took off from there,” he said. “We are willing to help and train others get into the business.

“There are opportunities like selling honey, raising queens for sale and educating young people on the importance of bees to the environment,” Dr. Oxendine said.

BUILDING ENTREPRENEURS

Dr. Mike Menefee, UNCP’s Thomas Family Professor of Entrepreneurship, offered the services of the Thomas Family Center for new and expanding businesses.

“We do work with farms, and we are interested in the economic development of southeastern North Carolina,” Dr. Menefee said. “Five new businesses have been started by students in our entrepreneurship programs.

“Students come up with so many great ideas for businesses,” he continued. “We hope to open a business incubator in the near future.”

For more information about the Biotechnology Research and Training Center or the Robeson County Farm Bureau’s programs at UNCP, please call 910.521.6650 or email biotech@uncp.edu.

For more information about the Thomas Family Center for Entrepreneurship, please contact them at 910.775.4208 or email thomasfamilycenter@uncp.edu.

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