Biotech start-up digging for success with proprietary truffles

Emory Rakestraw—
Truffle dog

BURLINGTON, N.C. —— On a cold January day, Nancy Rosborough, Founder and CEO of Mycorrhiza Biotech, LLC, hops into her Jeep with her trained truffle hunting dog, Ava. Once reaching an unmarked field on the rural outskirts of Burlington, a demonstration plot of hazelnut and loblolly pines, Rosborough gets out of the car undoing a rope securing the area, “The truffle business is a tough business, people will steal dogs, trees, truffles, there’s a lot of secrecy,” she says.

In January, Mycorrhiza, which means “a fungus that grows in association with the roots of a plant in a symbiotic or mildly pathogenic relationship,” announced their first successful truffle harvest. Planted by a client in 2014, the fragrant white truffle, Bianchetto (Tuber borchii) saw success, although a decade in the making.

“When we went in October, we weren’t expecting truffles, we weren’t expecting them til spring.” said Rosborough. Traditional tuber borchii emerges at or around four years, MBT set a record with their harvest of two years and three months.

MBT is the first to grow Bianchetto truffles on both an economically and ecologically important agroforestry tree, the loblolly pine. Rosborough, who is no stranger to farming, knew she wanted to be her own boss and started MBT 12 years ago as a mission to assist land owners and farmers in keeping and expanding agricultural enterprises.

“I wanted to keep the family farm going. I knew I wasn’t going to do tobacco, dairy or livestock, and I figured truffles grow on the roots of trees so it would be easier…It’s supposed to be easy, but it’s not. You just don’t know what’s going on with the seedling you’re purchasing, and that’s why I started the company.” said Rosborough.

She noted a key component to the business was receiving grants through the North Carolina Biotechnology Center, “The work we did under that grant actually was the foundation for the current harvest we have now, they were indispensable.”

MBT also partnered with NC A&T Fungal Biotechnology Laboratory for work on both loblolly and pecan truffles, and currently, MBT is the only company in North America producing truffles on loblolly pine. Aside from the demo field, the scientific research, inoculation work and analysis takes place at the laboratory in Burlington. From the start, MBT has marketed itself as a full-service agribusiness focusing on truffle seedling certification. This includes DNA-based screening, standard analysis, custom assay design and Scanning Electron Microscopy.

As for her clients, Rosborough says she is, “Over the moon.” The recently harvested white truffles sell for $35 an ounce with a market revolving around high-end food services. While occasionally served on a dish, chefs prefer truffles for their aromatic purposes to finish sauce or enhance the flavor of an entrée dish.

While the initial harvest is cause for celebration, MBT plans for future development, including software to support radio frequency drones for capturing information and additional security systems.

For Ava, her companion turned truffle dog, it seems there’s a lot of hunting in the future. With only the first harvest announced, MBT and Rosborough continue to anticipate the weekly harvests for the remainder of the season.