As an industry still in its early stages, hemp is a crop that still needs development in nearly all parts of its supply chain to reach maturity.

A new research initiative spanning federal governmental agencies, universities, and private companies is attempting to help facilitate connections to bolster that development.

The Hemp Research Consortium is a new initiative coordinated by the Foundation for Food & Agriculture Research (FFAR), a federal organization founded by the 2014 Farm Bill to connect funders, researchers, and farmers to support agricultural projects.

Researchers from Cornell University, North Carolina State University, and the University of Kentucky are leading the charge on research projects that will help address some of the industry’s most pressing issues, including genetic development, agricultural production systems, product development, and more.

As part of its requirement to match every public dollar spent on research with a dollar of private funding, the FFAR has secured $5 million for the research project, half of which was funded through private investments, while the FFAR matched the other half using public funds.

Leaders of the research project hope that investment is just the beginning.

“We see hemp as having the potential to really help diversify profitable crops for growers,” says Dr. Jeffrey Rosichan, Ph.D., the director of the Crops of the Future Collaborative at FFAR. “The growers need both a source of seed and material to grow, but they also need a place to sell their products, so that’s…what we’re trying to do with this consortium.”

A Model Built on Collaboration

While cross-collaboration among the universities had already been taking place when Rosichan reached out regarding establishing the consortium, recruiting companies to help fund the initiative took place over two years.

Companies that have committed so far–including Agilent Technologies, the IR-4 program, IND HEMP, International Hemp, Oregon CBD, The Scotts Company, and U.S. Sugar–will have the ability to approach the researchers and propose a project that would help advance not only their businesses, but also hemp farming in the U.S.

“What’s really unique about this model is that it’s participant-driven research,” Rosichan says. “Companies say, ‘Here are our big needs,’ and it’s incumbent on academic researchers to say, ‘Here is the solution to help you address your needs.’”

Once researchers complete projects, companies that are part of the consortium will have early access to the results. After the companies get exclusive first looks into the research, the results will be published in publicly facing papers to benefit the broader industry.

If any IP is created, Rosichan says participating companies will have an option to negotiate for non-exclusive rights to the IP, which means it will also be available to the general public.

“They get a year head start to share results, develop products, and capitalize on those results,” Rosichan says. “We’ve come up with ways to benefit participants but also help the public.”

Several projects are already in the works. For example, Oregon CBD, which has developed an array of triploid hemp genetics to tackle cross-pollination issues, is working with all three universities to examine the pollen sensitivity of triploids versus diploids, and to identify any additional agronomic benefits these new varieties may have.

Meanwhile, International Hemp is working with the universities to expand its line of fiber genetics to include those that will work for southern latitudes.

“We have some of the highest-yielding fiber and grain varieties for northern latitudes, and we recently started domestic certified seed production on two Italian fiber varieties for fiber growers in the southern United States,” said International Hemp CEO Derek T. Montgomery in a news release. “The U.S. hemp market needs high-yielding, certified varieties for fiber and grain, and we want to send the message that reliable, high-yielding, stable industrial hemp varieties bred by leading American universities are on the way.”

Not all projects will require collaboration across the participating universities, says Dr. David Suchoff, Ph.D., director of the consortium and an alternative crops extension specialist and assistant professor who is leading hemp research at NC State University. Some projects may work better at certain universities based on their strengths–for example, any research involving textiles would likely take place at NC State, which is well known for its textiles program.

“The way we look at it is industry members now have access to all these resources at all three institutions, so let’s match the appropriate researcher with the specific challenge,” Suchoff says. “That’s the strength of the whole consortium model–it’s the creation of a toolbox with many tools to fix many challenges.”

The Future of the Consortium

While the consortium just kicked off its efforts in March with an initial goal of three years, those involved in the project hope to continue expanding both research and private partners.

“From my thinking, there’s no shortage about what the potential of the crop is, and there’s no shortage of research needs,” Rosichan says.

The trio of universities that had already been collaborating, which are based in the eastern U.S., took an initial focus on hemp flower. However, the consortium has broadened its research to include hemp across grain and fiber as well.

Rosichan and Suchoff say as more diverse partners become involved, the consortium will be able to expand even further to help develop the entire hemp supply chain.

“It may have started in the east, but we really would love to see this be a nationwide consortium,” Suchoff says. “The strength of this consortium lies in the diversity of its academic and industry members.”