FLORENCE — The seed of an idea that sprouted from Clemson’s Advanced Plant Technology (APT) Program is blooming where it was planted near the university’s Pee Dee Research and Education Center.

Carolina Seed Systems is relocating from Greenville to co-locate with Clemson’s research station in Florence — one of six strategically located across the state’s distinct soil and climate regions — to serve growers along the Interstate 95 corridor and rural South Carolina. A spinoff of the APT Program, Carolina Seed Systems is working to address a lack of feed grain hybrid crop development and a regional feed shortage.

Grain sorghum grows in a field at Clemson's research station in Florence.

Grain sorghum, a cereal grain that is often used as a substitute for corn and feeding rations in the animal industry, grows in a field at Clemson University’s Pee Dee Research and Education Center in Florence.
Image Credit: Clemson University

“This is the vision we’ve had for a spinoff company and we’re just executing that vision and partnering with Clemson to advance the land-grant mission by moving to a region where our stakeholders are located,” said Carolina Seed Systems founder and Chief Executive Officer Zachary Brenton. “It’s really kind of a transition from an idea into the actual execution of a tangible impact.”

That transition is being funded by a $10 million award to Steve Kresovich, director of the APT program and lead principal investigator on the project, through the Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy (ARPA-E), as part of a program called Transportation Energy Resources from Renewable Agriculture to prioritize the commercialization of the science and products.

Kresovich said the transformation of the project from a concept into a tangible product is in keeping with “the truth breath” of Clemson’s land-grant mission to provide unbiased, research-based information to improve the quality of life for all South Carolinians.

“Our goal is to do good science at Clemson and provide the foundation for those companies, particularly Carolina Seed Systems, to advance and serve the crop agriculture needs in the southeastern United States, but most importantly to have a positive effect on the rural economy in the I-95 corridor,” he said.

An agency in the U.S. Department of Energy, ARPA-E is charged with overcoming long-term and high-risk technological barriers in the development of energy technologies.

Krish Doraiswamy, ARPA-E technology-to-market adviser, said the agency focuses on transformational energy projects that can be meaningfully advanced with a small amount of funding over a defined period of time.

“Academic entrepreneurship is a key driver of energy innovation,” he said. “ARPA-E has funded hundreds of projects at colleges and universities across America, advancing high-potential, high-impact energy technologies that are too early for private-sector investment. The project with Clemson is an example of one such initiative.”

Grain sorghum is a cereal grain that is often used as a substitute for corn and feeding rations in the animal industry. Because of its drought tolerance and nutrient efficiency, grain sorghum can lower farmers’ seed cost and increases their profitability.

Doraiswamy said renewable energy through biofuels is a particular area of focus for ARPA-E. Significant improvements to the productivity and efficiency of biofuel crops are needed to produce the large volume of biomass needed for economic biofuel production, and that’s where Clemson can help, according to Doraiswamy.

“Clemson University has been leading a multifunctional, multi-institutional team that is integrating the agriculture, information technology and engineering communities to design and apply new tools to the development of improved varieties of energy sorghum, a crop used to produce biofuel,” he said. “These tools will be equally applicable to the cultivation of sorghum and other crops for other end uses. The team’s goal is to create sorghum varieties that are adaptable to the environment and soils specifically in the American Southeast and thereby create new options for bio-energy and agriculture in that region.”

The metaphorical seed for Carolina Seed Systems was planted when, as graduate students in the APT Program, Brenton and Richard Boyles evaluated grain sorghum characteristics and began working to exploit natural variations in the plant’s genetic material to determine what genes are responsible for adapting it to the climate and production systems in the Southeast.

Grain sorghum is shown in a field at Clemson's Pee Dee research station.

The mission of the Clemson University Pee Dee Research and Education Center is to foster economic stability and development by conducting research and education programs focused on traditional and new plant-based systems appropriate to the Pee Dee region of South Carolina.
Image Credit: Clemson University

APT is a key part of an overall effort at Clemson to optimize plants for production for all agricultural stakeholders — from large-scale producers to small-scale landowners who work with heirloom varieties for restaurants, brewers, distillers and more.

After completing their Ph.D. work, Boyles took a job as an assistant professor at the Pee Dee research station, while Brenton left to pursue Carolina Seed Systems, which licensed the intellectual property from Clemson through the Clemson University Research Foundation.

Now, the company has taken the next step in bringing its product to the marketplace by teaming up with Bloomfield Robotics, the Robotics Institute at Carnegie Mellon University and Hi Fidelity Genetics. The goal of the proposed research and development program is to develop superior crop hybrids by fully leveraging the extensive global sorghum gene pool.

“Our goal was to develop a sorghum variety that goes into a grower’s field where they can compete and grow their business and we can grow ours as well,” Brenton said. “It’s not only creating jobs, it’s not only giving farmers a different option to make money, but it’s also bringing and enhancing the research and development infrastructure and that kind of startup incubation environment, so it serves a lot of purposes. But our focus is continuing to serve the land-grant mission by creating a private sector entity focused on grower success.”

The project consists of two overarching themes. First, the team will develop a new crop improvement paradigm through advances in robotics, sensors, computing and genomics that they will then share with the public. Next, they will use what they learn for sorghum crop improvement and commercialization.

“Our team will optimize and deploy hybrid vigor in the sorghum gene pool to find more valuable traits, speed up the breeding cycle and increase the impact of elite germplasm of this leading bioenergy crop,” Kresovich said.

Smithfield Foods Chief Science & Technology Officer Terry Coffey, also serving as a scientific adviser for Carolina Seed Systems, said one of the objectives of his team is to identify and evaluate feed ingredients that can be produced closer to mid-Atlantic food animal producers. Currently, most feed ingredients are produced in other regions of the country and shipped great distances to the East Coast. For example, the Carolinas import about 300 million bushels of grain each year from the Midwest.

“This results in a large deficit of grain production compared with demand in the region,” Coffey said. “The result is a cost disadvantage for livestock producers and a marketing opportunity for row crop farmers in the area.”

Carolina Seed Systems seeks to fill that void, in part, by delivering to farmers regionally adapted grain sorghum hybrids, which Coffey said is a crop that has greater tolerance for dry conditions that often occur in the area.

“We do have high amounts of average rainfall per year, but extended dry periods of days and weeks during our hot summer months can damage these crops during critical periods of development,” he said. “This year is a perfect example of that. CSS is developing crops that are well-suited for these types of soils and this region and will benefit farmers by producing more reliable yields in our climate conditions and fill the local market demand for livestock feed.”

Kresovich said that locating the project along the I-95 corridor and in proximity to the Pee Dee REC shows Brenton’s commitment to the mission of the APT program: to improve agriculture in South Carolina by using a variety of technologies to advance crop agriculture in the state.

“Zach, with the company’s formation, has had the opportunity and has had discussions with people who would love to have him at Research Triangle Park in North Carolina or potentially in St. Louis at their science and technology park that’s oriented towards agriculture and with people in California, but he and Rick Boyles altruistically have been committed to this concept,” he said, “and probably against better judgment for making money in the short term, they want to have it in Florence and to be a homegrown company that contributes to this region rather than to sort of start it up and fly away.”