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U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack Touts Mass. Biofuels Sector

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Agrivida biochemist Taran Shilling. left, shows assay plates to U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack at the company's Medford headquarters. (Curt Nickisch/WBUR)
Agrivida biochemist Taran Shilling. left, shows assay plates to U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack at the company's Medford headquarters. (Curt Nickisch/WBUR)

If you’re from America’s heartland, Friday was a great day to be in Medford.

U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack made an unusual visit to Massachusetts Friday to spotlight the state's growing biofuels sector. The former Iowa governor toured Agrivida, a Medford company that’s out to develop the next generation of the renewable fuel ethanol.

The connection between Massachusetts and the country's midsection was on full display. Taran Shilling, a biochemist who’s also from Iowa, showed the agriculture secretary through company laboratories. Agrivida’s two co-founders are from Minnesota and Kansas. One big investor in the company is a venture capital firm in South Dakota.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture also has a vested interest in the Medford company's efforts.

"You may be surprised to know that the United States Department of Agriculture is actually an investor, if you will, in the technology that’s being formulated here," Vilsack said after his tour.

The USDA has $3 million dollars in research grants to Agrivida. Vilsack says the scientific prowess in the home of the pilgrims is changing a prairie industry.

"This is not only a great opportunity for great research and job growth in the state of Massachusetts," Vilsack said. "It’s also a great opportunity to expand a renewable energy industry which is at the heart of restructuring and redesigning the rural economies of the country."

Agrivida is working on the problem of ethanol, a biofuel that cars can use in place of gasoline or as an additive. Right now, most ethanol is made from corn.

"The talent of science is so good here. That’s why we’re here and that’s why we’re not someplace else..."

Mark Wong, Agrivida CEO

Making ethanol from the part of corn that you eat has pushed food prices up. It’s also more energy efficient to make ethanol from the rest of the plant. But cellulosic ethanol, as it’s called, is also more complicated to make. Agrivida senior scientist Phil Lessard says his company is developing a way to do it.

"If we are successful in reducing the cost," Lessard said, "then the cellulosic ethanol itself will now be competitive and we’re hoping more competitive than corn grain-derived ethanol."

The big hurdle for cellulosic ethanol is breaking down the complex plant materials. The enzymes that do that are expensive to make. Lessard says Agrivida is genetically modifying plants so they make the enzymes as they grow.

"If you can get the plant to produce it essentially for free," Lessard said, "then that’s a lot of money you’ve saved right there in the overall process. And it makes cellulosic ethanol much cheaper than it otherwise would have been."

Agrivida’s not the only Boston-area company working on this problem. Other local companies such as Verenium and Mascoma have developed different technologies.

Agrivida CEO Mark Wong says many people are unaware of the growing Bay State biofuels sector.

"We are an outlier in Massachusetts because we’re an ag-focused company," Wong said. "There’s a lot of pharma companies that do gene shuffling and stuff like we do, but there’s not a lot of ag companies."

"But the talent of science is so good here," Wong added. "That’s why we’re here and that’s why we’re not someplace else where there’s more corn plants or sorghum plants or switchgrass plants."

Wong says eventually Agrivida will have to expand to farm country. Even so, he says the company’s intellectual capital is is here and the headquarters will stay.

If things go Wong’s way, Massachusetts could become as well known for its farm fuel products as it is for its pharmaceutical ones.

This program aired on May 13, 2011. The audio for this program is not available.

Curt Nickisch Twitter Business & Technology Reporter
Curt Nickisch was formerly WBUR's business and technology reporter.

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