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Economic Development Administration’s investment in UC Riverside research efforts to combat Citrus HLB disease

In July of 2020, UC Riverside announced a major discovery in the fight against Huanglongbing (HLB, also known as citrus greening disease). HLB is one of the most serious citrus plant diseases in the world which has already devastated 90% of Florida’s citrus groves and is threatening Southern California’s $7 billion citrus industry that contributes more than 22,000 jobs.  Unfortunately with HLB, most infected trees die within a few years. Infected trees produce fruits that are green, have not matured properly, are misshapen, and bitter to taste making them unsuitable for sale as fresh fruit or for juice. This fatal plant disease threatens to devastate California’s citrus industry and put thousands out of work.

To address this urgent need, Dr. Hailing Jin, a geneticist at the University of California, Riverside (UCR), has demonstrated in greenhouse trials on young citrus plants, that a type of citrus-derived natural product (a stable antimicrobial peptide, SAMP) is effective in preventing and treating HLB infection. The UCR technology is early stage but these are very promising results. Extensive field testing is required to verify the efficacy of the SAMPs in real production settings and with trees of various ages and levels of infection. The technology has been licensed to Invaio Sciences, who bring scientific, product development, and commercial expertise in the Ag Biotech space, plus a proprietary delivery system that will be critical in bringing the technology to commercial success. The discovery of this promising technology is one more example of long-standing research and innovation in citrus at UCR.

In 2016, the Economic Development Administration (EDA) Los Angeles office awarded a major grant for citrus research equipment to UCR. The $500,000 EDA award, with $500,000 matching in-kind from UCR, was used to purchase equipment for multiple UCR citrus research laboratories, including the Citrus Clonal Protection Program (CCPP) facility. The EDA investment will accelerate the production of HLB-free citrus germplasm, the genetic material that allows for the production of HLB-free plants in the future.  The germplasm will be used directly by the industry, over 5,000 citrus enthusiasts in California, and scientists working in a variety of related research projects. 

“The CCPP has been a collaborative program among the University of California, the Citrus Industry of California, and State and Federal regulatory agencies since its inception over 60 years ago. The investment received from the EDA is particularly meaningful as it demonstrates the important role that a clean plant program such as the CCPP plays in preserving and creating jobs in California and the USA,” said Georgios Vidalakis, UCR Professor and Director of the CCPP.

Citrus growers have estimated that every CCPP variety introduction that is commercially viable creates 1-2 jobs per acre including citrus nursery jobs, harvesting crews, field transportation personnel, packing house staff, logistics personnel, sales & marketing staff, and cold storage and shipping staff. The expected economic impact of the project on California’s commercial citrus regions will be the preservation of more than 3,000 citrus farmer jobs, and 12,000 citrus-related jobs. In addition, the equipment purchased from UCR’s EDA award is expected to generate more than 181 new citrus-related jobs and $22,700,000 in direct investment based on letters of support received for this EDA grant proposal.

Since 2016, the EDA has awarded $3.8 million to UC Riverside to support citrus research, entrepreneurship, access to capital, and life science startup incubation. “This EDA funding has been critical for the creation of initiatives that have helped  build the infrastructure that encourages company creation and job growth in the technology sector in Inland Southern California,” said Rosibel Ochoa, Associate Vice Chancellor for Technology Partnerships.

Through one of the awarded grants, the EDA i6, UCR’s entrepreneurial programs reviewed more than 390 business ideas, and worked with more than 360 companies who have raised over $19 million in investment capital, received almost $12 million in federal grants and SBIR/STTR funding, and supported over 375 jobs. Many of those companies continue to be supported through UC Riverside’s EPIC Small Business Development Center (EPIC SBDC), also funded by the EDA, receiving 1:1 mentorship through experienced Entrepreneurs-in-Residence, weekly workshops to grow their company, and access to capital through EPIC SBDC’s growing investor network.