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Seed Central: Aiming to be the Silicon Valley of seed

Five years ago, François Korn was sitting in a board meeting of the Seed Biotechnology Center at the University of California, Davis (UC-Davis) when talk turned to exactly how many seed and seed-related companies were situated around the university. No one was quite sure, so when Korn returned to his office at SeedQuest—the central information website for the global seed industry, which he runs—he identified every nearby seed company he could and pinpointed them on a map.

Hand holding a tomato seedling

Fifty were located within an hour’s drive of campus, he discovered, and twice that many within a three-hour drive.

“So what we had was a seed industry cluster” in the backyard of UC-Davis, Korn says, “the premier agricultural university in the world.” He also knew the cluster held tremendous prospects for the region, if someone would just give it some juice.

It didn’t share the same rich culture of cooperation and exchange that flourished alongside competition in nearby Silicon Valley, for example. Similarly, a substantial gap existed between the research being conducted at UC-Davis and the needs of the area’s seed companies, despite efforts by the Seed Biotechnology Center to bridge the divide.

Korn resolved to energize the cluster, and he started by giving it a name. “We decided to call it Seed Central,” he says, “and to help the companies present in this region benefit from the fact that they are all right here.”

In the four years since Korn launched Seed Central with Seed Biotechnology Center director and UC-Davis professor Kent Bradford, the initiative has been doing just that. Thanks to its work, companies that collaborate with UC-Davis scientists today pay less in overhead and wrestle with less red tape. Consortia set up through the university are combining public and private funds to tackle research projects of mutual interest. Seed Central also boasts a vibrant student program that exposes UC-Davis undergrads and graduate students to career opportunities in the seed industry.

Last but not least are Seed Central’s networking events. Once a month, upwards of 150 people meet either at UC-Davis or in Salinas to the south to hear an invited speaker and chat over food and drink. The gatherings, by all accounts, have been wildly popular. “Over the last two and a half years, about 1,200 individuals—unique users you would call them in web parlance—have attended,” Korn says proudly, including people from 100 different companies and a dozen universities, he estimates.

Talk may sound cheap compared with all of the other activity. But to those involved, the greater connection and trust fostered by these events are what’s making everything else possible. “One of the greatest things about all of this is that now we’re in contact and we listen,” Bradford says, noting, as one example, how industry concerns about finding skilled plant breeders have sparked new curricula and programs at UC-Davis.

Francois Korn and Kent Bradford

“It becomes an ongoing conversation, and I think that’s critical,” agrees Seed Biotechnology Center research director Allen Van Deynze. “We’re an industry—not public, private, government, or whatever. We’re all in this together.”

Bringing organization to the industry

With its wet winters and dry summers, California is perfect for growing seed, and by the 1970s, the state was firmly established as a global center of breeding and seed production for a diversity of crops, including vegetables, alfalfa, and sunflowers. When Korn arrived on the scene 36 years ago, however, he soon realized the renowned industry lacked something fundamental.

“It struck me right away that the seed industry didn’t organize its information very well: Information about products, information about markets, and so on,” he says. “It was such a striking difference from the previous [fertilizer] industry in which I had worked.” That’s why when the personal PC, internet, and other tools became available for consolidating and disseminating information worldwide, Korn left his position at a seed company to establish the global information clearinghouse SeedQuest.

Meanwhile, Bradford, a UC-Davis seed physiologist, was noticing a gulf between the university and industry. The depth of it hit home in 1988, he says, when he was at Penn State for a seed meeting. Hoping to rustle up some industry funding for his research, Bradford was amazed to realize how many California companies were in attendance. Then a colleague from Louisiana told Bradford how he’d soon be swinging through California to try to acquire some funding of his own.

“I had an epiphany,” Bradford says with a laugh. The industry he wanted to connect with was back at home. When he returned to Davis, Bradford began reaching out to local seed businesses, and before long, they’d assembled an informal research group that still exists today, focused on applied projects. Later, he joined with a group of seed industry executives, the university, the California Seed Association, and others to create a proper hub of public–private research collaboration on campus. Their efforts culminated in the Seed Biotechnology Center, which opened in 1999 with Bradford as director and Korn as an advisory board member.

The point of this brief history is that Seed Central didn’t happen overnight. “This is an evolution, a 20-year story,” says George Kotch, vice president of R&D, America Pacific region, at the seed company HM.CLAUSE in Davis. The company has been one of UC-Davis’ and Seed Central’s most enthusiastic supporters, he adds. And so has Kotch, for that matter. Before joining HM.CLAUSE, for instance, Kotch volunteered for six months at the Seed Biotechnology Center, where his goal was not only to help the university, but to meet industry folks throughout California. He found he didn’t have to leave his office. “The number of companies that visit the center is huge,” he says. “It’s a hub of activity.”

Today he sees Seed Central beginning to generate the same magic for the region. “Really what we’re trying to do is create a Silicon Valley among seed companies: Flowers, veggies, corn, soybean, everything,” he says.

Continue reading this open access article, which originally appeared in the Dec. 2014 issue of CSA News magazine.