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The World’s Most High Tech Indoor Farm Doesn’t Grow Food or Cannabis

“The real transfection of plants to make biopharmaceuticals was hatched in Palo Alto in a bar called the Sundance Mining Company in 1987,” Barry Holtz, CEO of iBio CDMO, the world’s most high-tech indoor farm, told delegates at the recent Indoor Agtech Innovation Summit in Brooklyn, NY.

Transfection is the introduction of foreign DNA into plant cells in order to instruct them to create specific proteins. Essentially, iBio turns plants into bioreactors, Holtz explained.

iBio uses highly automated indoor farming methods to manufacture pharmaceutical drugs and, according to Holtz, it already has much of the technology that today’s food-growing indoor farms are just starting to develop.

“A lot of the things being discussed today, we’ve already done, but we’ve done it in a vacuum,” said Holtz of the automation, artificial intelligence, and robotics discussed by other speakers at the conference.

The thought may have begun in a bar, but the company got started in earnest when the US Defense Advanced Research Agency (DARPA) – think Q branch from a James Bond Film – posed a challenge to Holtz in the 1990s; what he called a “live fire test.”

“We received a gene in the mail – a sequence. We knew it was a vaccine against some form of influenza,” said Holtz, creating tension as if he was pitching a movie. “Our charge was to make 50 million doses in 12 weeks, and we did that.”

Now, the company’s products are used to treat fibrotic diseases including idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis, systemic sclerosis, and scleroderma.

By all measures, iBio passed the test of time as well. The New York Stock Exchange-listed company (IBIO) recently filed for an expected $16 million underwritten public offering and is in the process of expanding to Brazil and Japan.

iBIO’s Texas facility houses laboratory and pilot-scale operations, as well as large-scale automated hydroponic systems capable of growing over four million plants and delivering over 300 kilograms of recombinant protein pharmaceutical active ingredient per year.

So what does the farm looks like? Well first of all, it’s underground. Holtz said that when DARPA approached him about building the facility, it needed to be “hardened.” Being in Texas that meant tornado proof and hurricane proof. Holtz joked that the farm could probably “take an RPG.”

The farm has 13-inch thick concrete walls, and its growing compartments are 150 feet long and 50 feet high. The growing and harvesting happen without any human interaction.

“We’ve probably over-engineered everything,” Holtz joked. He went on to explain that the farm has the same capacity as 32 12,000-liter bioreactors and would cost $600 million- $700 million to build in “today’s money.”

The level of security and fortification is due to the immense responsibility of making vaccines and treatments.

“When you license a drug, you have an implicit responsibility to deliver it and once a patient population grows they become dependent on that drug. So the FDA looks at ‘can you supply?’” explained Holtz.

The reward is high in pharmaceuticals, but so is the risk. Not only is operating to a pharmaceutical standard expensive, but licenses for active ingredients are granted by formulation and not by facility, said Holtz, so the regulatory burden doesn’t get relatively lighter with scale.

Holtz said he had come to the conference to collaborate with the growing industry of indoor food farms. But with a $200 per gram cost of goods for one of Holtz’s pharmaceutical products, the distance between the two industries seems to be miles rather than feet. 

Photo: Barry Holtz on stage at Indoor Agtech Summit with Nate Story from Plenty and Jessica Kristof from Phylos Biosciences.

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