A Better Gambit for Illinois: Bio-Crops

One startup already has contracts with Monsanto and Syngenta

Chicago's lack of biotech success hasn't put off all venture capitalists. G. Steven Burrill runs Burrill & Co., a San Francisco firm with more than $950 million under management and a specialty in agricultural biotechnology. As such, he's drawn to the Midwest. "I've seen the transformation of the Farm Belt around fuel and energy," he says. "It has redefined the Midwest's reputation on both coasts."

One of his local bets is Chromatin, a startup based in a 5,000-square-foot lab on the Illinois Institute of Technology campus, with a separate research facility in Champaign. The venture has pioneered a way to insert batches of genes into plant cells, increasing the success rate of bioengineered seeds for drought- and pest-resistance or other desired traits. Because the genetic snippets are not actually added to a plant's chromosomes, the company can also keep the modifications from showing up in subsequent generations.

The technology was invented and commercialized by Chromatin Chief Executive Daphne Preuss when she was a professor of molecular genetics and cell biology at the University of Chicago. Preuss, now on leave from her classes to run the company, and her partners raised $4.7 million from Burrill in 2000, plus $7.9 million from Burrill and others since then. They're shopping for more capital today.

The company has contracted with Monsanto (MON) and Syngenta (SYT), which are using its technology to engineer food and biofuel crops. Chromatin licenses the basic patents from the University of Chicago but owns the patent for applications of the technology in such plants as corn, soybeans, and cotton.

Illinois is becoming one of the nation's centers of biofuel research, thanks to a $500 million grant from BP (BP), which has teamed up with the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and the University of California at Berkeley to build the Energy Biosciences Institute. Almost half of the research is taking place in Illinois, says Stephen P. Long, the institute's Champaign-based deputy director. That effort includes finding efficient methods of breaking down such hardy crops as corn and switchgrass into sugars for ethanol production, plus building a 340-acre farm where seed-stock research and plant production will take place.

—Stuart Luman

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