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NC State and BASF: Dedicated to a Sustainable Future

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A leading chemical company, BASF is globally headquartered in Germany and operates in more than 90 countries, with its Bioscience Research division based in Research Triangle Park. The company innovates in areas like sustainable agriculture and advanced sustainable materials.

NC State and BASF have been partners for many years. In that time, the two have completed more than 100 research projects together — supported by nearly $6 million in sponsored research and an additional $1 million in gift funding — and dozens of students have completed internships. Nine patents have resulted from the research collaborations. Early projects included developing eco-friendly flame retardant fabrics and other novel materials. Today, BASF works with NC State researchers in areas such as plant sciences innovation and crop protection to bring new solutions to market.

Solving global challenges

Both NC State and BASF are committed to protecting our planet.

“Our purpose is to create chemistry for a sustainable future,” said BASF Bioscience Research President Peter Eckes. “We are really leading the way in developing new sustainable technologies such as novel chemical processes that enable net-zero CO2 emission.”

In every collaboration with NC State, the company is focused on environmental sustainability and innovation. “We both recognize that science and technology are critical in creating innovation to solve global challenges,” added Eckes. “And there is no way we can tackle them all by ourselves.”

Partnerships embody NC State’s mission of Think and Do. In working with BASF, researchers are in tune with the processes and needs of the bioscience industry.

“Research creates the solutions that help agriculture and food systems grow. It’s important that we not only do basic and applied research, but that we work with companies like BASF to bring ideas from the lab into the world,” said College of Agriculture and Life Sciences (CALS) Dean Richard Linton.

BASF, along with other key industry partners, are involved in the development of the NC Plant Sciences Initiative, opening in 2022 on Centennial Campus. “Working with partners like BASF, we can understand what the needs are, what the opportunities are in agriculture,” Linton added. “How can we make plants better? How can we increase their yield? How can we lessen water use? These are all things that we can’t do alone at NC State.”

Rodolphe Barrangou, Todd R. Klaenhammer Distinguished Professor in the Department of Food, Bioprocessing and Nutrition Sciences, has worked with BASF on CRISPR-based technologies. Recent work includes using these technologies with BASF chemistry to control the composition and function of bacteria in the microbiome that impact human health. The team is also using disruptive technologies to ensure a more efficient food supply chain.

“There are big problems in the world, and they require big solutions,” Barrangou said. “Whether it’s breeding trees, feeding the world, addressing diseases and viruses – those solutions come from the hard work of scientists who work across the boundaries of academia and industry.”

“NC State brings a legacy of finding practical solutions to real problems,” said Chris Hewitt, BASF’s innovation network manager. “The research is addressing, ‘How’s this going to help farmers? How’s it going to help companies? How’s it going to help our friends, our neighbors, the communities that we’re in?’ At BASF, we are asking those same questions. We use those ideas and then develop products from them that address sustainability and global food production – things that we all care about for the future.”

Barrangou added: “Industry partnerships are very important for research. And bridging that gap by combining academic impetus with the business drive really enables us to bring science to reality.”

Multidisciplinary engagement

BASF signed its first master research agreement with CALS in 2014. Five years later the company renewed the agreement, broadening engagement across other disciplines.

“Both NC State and BASF are huge organizations, so having dedicated points of contact is extremely important,” said Kavita Bitra, BASF’s university liaison. “My role is to tap into the innovative technologies developed by NC State and align them to solve our business needs. The master research agreement saves a lot of time to initiate and develop collaborations – we have confidentiality, licensing and IP all covered under one umbrella.”

As director of research partnerships for CALS, Deborah Thompson identifies how companies and the college best partner together.

“I’m always looking for that right fit,” Thompson said. “What are the jigsaw puzzle pieces? What do they look like? Can I put two or more of them together in a way that makes a picture?”

The master research agreement between NC State and BASF allows the partnership to have an even greater impact than before.

“Since we signed the new MRA with BASF, they’ve jumped on board and brought in multiple colleges. We’ve had conversations with chemistry, engineering, textiles and veterinary medicine,” said NC State’s partnership developer Keisha Demps. “The master research agreement allows us to have a seamless and efficient way in order to get projects started. We don’t get weighed down with the red tape.”

Preparing students for the future

Inside the classroom, faculty members teach students by drawing from their experience collaborating with companies like BASF, offering new graduates a competitive advantage.

“NC State’s Accelerate to Industry program helped me bridge that gap of what I offer as a scientist, as a PhD student, and what a company needs,” said Sahand Saberi Bosari, ‘20 Ph.D. in chemical and biomolecular engineering and BASF scientist. “NC State teaches us, ‘Hey, while you’re focusing on your research, which is the most important priority, make sure you spend some time to develop those soft skills.” Bosari also interned with BASF while a student.

BASF is currently funding and mentoring graduate students focused on environmental agriculture and how microbes impact plant drought tolerance. “Having an industry mentor by their side, helping them develop those professional skills, is so important to those students. And it will help them as they embark on their scientific careers,” added Thompson.

The company held a competition for post-docs and grad students in North America to find a way to detect early biotic stress in plants.

“The winner from across all the universities in North America was a team from NC State,” said Hewitt. “They came up with this really cool electronic sniffer that can tell the difference between all the chemicals that plants emit and identify when the plants get stressed.”

Investing in NC State students means investing in BASF’s future workforce, too.

“About 20% of the Ph.D.s that we’ve hired into our leadership development program in North America have come from NC State. That shows the kind of well-rounded, prepared students that you deliver to the marketplace,” Hewitt added.

Long-term vision

Even after decades, there’s plenty of room for the partnership between NC State and BASF to grow. The two have a strong foundation, which means they’re able to take on more important and complex problems together.

“We’ve had an increasing number of collaborations over the last five years,” said Eckes. “This has grown naturally because trust is being built and there is a great amount of openness – this is something that I truly appreciate about NC State.”

“If I look at how this partnership will develop, there are so many challenges in the world we can still explore. We have this joint vision of developing innovation for a sustainable future and in the end, we are also creating friendship.”

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