Growing trees is a slow, cumbersome, and expensive effort, but healthy trees are vital. And according to Forest Biotech Group Director Jack Wang, forestry companies around the world can’t grow enough strong trees to keep up with climate change right now.
In July 2019, Wang arranged a meeting with fellow NC State faculty member Rodolphe Barrangou PhD, an expert in CRISPR gene-editing technology, with an idea to transform forestry and fill the gap. The two decided to team up to create more sustainable trees that can better withstand frost and drought and have greater resistance to disease. Plus, they wanted to shorten the breeding cycle to speed up tree growth. All of this would require less energy and fewer toxic chemicals to grow healthier trees.
“By the end of that first 60-minute meeting in 2019, we had a great idea of how to combine our expertise and innovation and form a startup company,” Barrangou says. The two men named their venture TreeCo and have figured out how to successfully edit trees without making them genetically modified organisms (GMOs).
“It was an academic collision of tree genetics with CRISPR-based genome editing,” Barrangou says. “We’re bringing disruptive and innovative technology to forestry to breed healthier and more sustainable forests.” But Barrangou is quick to point out that TreeCo is so much more than simply an experiment between two scientists.
“We’ll deploy commercially relevant products and solutions that will create societal value across the planet,” he says.
Forestry is one of the largest industries in TreeCo’s home state of North Carolina, bringing over $32 billion to the local economy each year. It’s also a significant source of employment for residents. Healthy trees power construction, printing, biofuels, and manufacturing for furniture, pulp, and paper.
Despite the critical role that trees play, Wang says that the current breeding technology is more than 100 years old. And time and space requirements make tree genetics an unpopular field. In fact, out of the hundreds of thousands of geneticists in the world, Barrangou estimates that only 300 individuals are working in tree molecular genetics.
“There are many barriers to entry for the field. Trees take significant space, plus decades to grow. It really requires long-term vision and commitment,” Wang says.
The work is performed first in a lab, then transferred to a greenhouse, then a field, and finally the forest. In the three years since their initial conversation, Wang and Barrangou have edited and grown 200 different tree variants. Their 12-foot tall trees are now at the greenhouse stage.
Wang and Barrangou are in it for the long haul, and they’re grateful for the support they’ve received along the way, particularly from their university, where their work is performed each day. The Chancellor’s Innovation Fund, an internal seed funding program at NC State, provided significant financial support, along with the National Science Foundation’s Small Business Technology Transfer Program. Fourscore has advised and counseled the company since TreeCo’s formation, helping to navigate the team through equity discussions, the university-spinout and licensing process, and understanding the benefits and risks of strategic relationships with other companies.
Recently, the company has established a partnership with “an ambitious visionary and committed partner” in the forestry business who is enthused about the potential. “We are in year 2 of our partnership and have been able to edit their elite trees very successfully. We are in a strong trajectory in terms of fundraising and commercialization,” Barrangou reports. These strategic relationships will surely propel the company to new stages of growth, and Fourscore looks forward to supporting the company throughout the journey.
The future is bright – and green – for TreeCo.