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Next up for Indiana biotech: Feed the world

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Even though the potential payoff for health care innovation is less certain these days, the business case for new ways to produce more food has never been stronger.

That’s the analysis that lies behind BioCrossroads’ new report, “Food and Agricultural Innovation: 21st Century Opportunities for Indiana,” released Thursday by the Indianapolis-based life sciences development group.

Rapid population growth in Africa and Asia will demand a doubling of worldwide food production from current levels by 2050, according to one estimate from the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization.

That means innovations to improve crop yields or to reduce the use of natural resources such as water and land is imperative, said report author Beth Bechdol, an Ice Miller LLP attorney and former official at the Indiana State Department of Agriculture.

Bechdol concluded that the places best positioned to produce those innovations are those that already have substantial amounts of ag production and ag research.

“It is the combination of traditional agricultural production capacity and the agricultural-related science and technology assets Indiana possesses that make it uniquely positioned to address and capitalize on the larger global trends that are going to reshape the agricultural industry over the next several decades,” Bechdol wrote.

Most of the rest of Bechdol’s report catalogs Indiana’s assets in those two categories.

Indiana’s biggest assets in ag research and development are Indianapolis-based Dow AgroSciences LLC, the Greenfield-based Elanco Animal Health division of Eli Lilly and Co., and Purdue University.

Those institutions are already doing their own work to commercialize ag-related products. But there are also some budding assets that could help in those processes or perhaps take technologies discovered by the large companies and turn them into startups.

For example, Bechdol noted, West Lafayette-based Cook Biotech recently formed a company called Cook Animal Health that is looking to commercialize ag technologies discovered by others. And an increasing number of venture capital firms, including Carmel-based Cultivian Ventures, are interested in funding ag tech companies.

On the production side, Indiana is the United States’ ninth-largest producer of crops and livestock, according to 2010 data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

In all, agriculture and ag-related businesses produce goods and services worth $16 billion statewide. They employ nearly one in five Hoosier workers and pay total wages of more than $4.3 billion, according to the BioCrossroads report. In addition, farmers generate an additional $1 billion in annual income for themselves.

But Bechdol and BioCrossroads want to create a separate group like BioCrossroads to get all those businesses talking to one another, so they can identify the best ways to advance the industry and spawn new participants in it.

“Indiana food and agricultural innovation stakeholders are well-positioned for their own business growth and expansion,” she wrote. “Greater coordination and collaboration among the various agricultural leaders could, however, foster even more economic development and help to reshape Indiana’s agricultural landscape, but it will require greater collective attention and engagement.”

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