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Startups find space to grow at Danforth Center

Startups find space to grow at Danforth Center

Kristine Menn, greenhouse coordinator

Kristine Menn, greenhouse coordinator, cleans out dead leaves from some field pennycress plants in 2015, at the company’s laboratory in the Danforth Plant Science Center. 

ST. LOUIS — The Danforth Plant Science Center, along with BRDG Park, has enabled Mike DeCamp to get a foothold in his business.

DeCamp, chief operating officer of the startup CoverCress, is one of more than a dozen firms that have taken up residence in BRDG Park, a plant science incubator connected to the Danforth Center. The resources available to the company’s scientists are a godsend, he said.

“We utilize the greenhouse space at Danforth as part of our operation,” he said. “BRDG Park is a first-class space.”

The company, formed in 2016, is working on improving genetics of pennycress, an emerging cash crop used for both animal feed and as a source for renewable fuel.

CoverCress is working on enhancing pennycress through both traditional plant breeding and gene edition, including CRISPR technology. The company formerly shared space in the Helix business incubator before moving to BRDG Park.

The main aims of the research are to increase yield and advance maturity so that the crop can be harvested earlier. Pennycress is sowed in the fall like a cover crop, usually following corn. Scientists there are also working to change some of the plant’s characteristics to make it more suitable for animal use.

“We now have our dedicated lab space, which is a big step for us,” DeCamp said. “We have five or six scientists working full time in that lab. We’re now official, full-fledged tenants. We’re using the greenhouses at Danforth as well.”

One goal is to make alterations in the genetic makeup of pennycress in order to make the plant more suitable for animal feed use. That includes lowering the fiber and removing some acids.

“Without BRDG Park it would have been difficult,” DeCamp said.

One challenge with pennycress is lining up the marketing chain, which includes processing and delivery. The company embraces a closed-loop value chain model, which includes separate contracts with growers to cultivate the crop and working with grain handlers in the market area.

The ultimate use, DeCamp said, is as an oilseed, with a focus on renewable fuels markets.

“It’s a chicken-and-egg question,” he said. “To have scale for crush, we need a lot of acres. What we’re doing initially is that our first customer is going to be a large broiler producer. We’ll be sending whole grain to a feed mill and then CoverCress will go into the feed ration as a 4-6% inclusion as an energy component, maybe replacing soybean oil.”

Like dried distillers grains left over from ethanol production of corn, the pennycress crop will produce meal as a byproduct for feed usage.

DeCamp is pleased with his company’s location.

“It’s a first-class space,” he said. “We pay market rates right now. But without that opportunity to partner we wouldn’t be able to afford to have access to everything at BRDG. We get great access for a period of time. When you outgrow that you move into a new situation. That’s kind of where we are now.”

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Nat Williams is Southern Illinois field editor, writing for Illinois Farmer Today, Iowa Farmer Today and Missouri Farmer Today.

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