To market, to market: Discovery to Product program helps researchers become entrepreneurs

Monday, October 31st, 2016

If you’re familiar with the College of Agricultural and Life Sciences (CALS), you no doubt know all about Stephen Babcock and his test that more than 100 years ago revolutionized the dairy industry by providing an inexpensive, easy way to determine the fat content of milk (thus preventing dishonest farmers from watering it down). What you might not know is that his great discovery went unpatented. The only money Babcock received for his invention was $5,000 as part of a Capper Award—given for distinguished service to agriculture—in 1930.

Just years before Babcock received that award, another entrepreneur was hard at work in his lab—and his discovery would break ground not only in science, but also in direct remuneration for the university.

In 1923, Harry Steenbock discovered that irradiating food increased its vitamin D content, thus treating rickets, a disease caused by vitamin D deficiency. After using $300 of his own money to patent his irradiation technique, Steenbock recognized the value of such patents to the university. He became influential in the formation in 1925 of the Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation (WARF), a technology transfer office that patents UW–Madison innovations and returns the proceeds back to the university.

Discoveries have continued flowing from CALS, and WARF plays a vital role for researchers wanting to patent and license their ideas. But today’s innovators and entrepreneurs have some added help: a new program called Discovery to Product, or D2P for short.

Established in 2013, and co-funded by UW–Madison and WARF, D2P has two main goals: to bring ideas to market through the formation of startup companies, and to serve as an on-campus portal for entrepreneurs looking for help. Together, WARF and D2P form a solid support for researchers looking to move their ideas to market. That was the intent of then-UW provost Paul DeLuca and WARF managing director Carl Gulbrandsen in conceiving of the program.

“The idea of D2P is to make available a set of skills and expertise that was previously unavailable to coach people with entrepreneurial interests,” explains Leigh Cagan, WARF’s chief technology commercialization officer and a D2P board member. “There needed to be a function like that inside the university, and it would be hard for WARF to do that from the outside as a separate entity, which it is.”

D2P gained steam after its initial conception under former UW–Madison chancellor David Ward, and the arrival of Rebecca Blank as chancellor sealed the deal.

Mark Cook

Mark Cook. Photo: Michael Kienitz

“Chancellor Blank, former secretary of the U.S. Department of Commerce, was interested in business and entrepreneurship. D2P really started to move forward when she was hired,” says Mark Cook, a CALS professor of animal sciences. Cook, who holds more than 40 patented technologies, launched the D2P plan and served as interim D2P director and board chair.

With the light green and operational funds from WARF and the University secured, D2P was on its way. But for the program to delve into one of its goals— helping entrepreneurs bring their ideas to market—additional funding was needed.

For that money, Cook and DeLuca put together a proposal for an economic development grant from the University of Wisconsin System. They were awarded $2.4 million, and the Igniter Fund was born. Because the grant was good only for two years, the search for projects to support with the new funds started right away.

By mid-2014, veteran entrepreneur John Biondi was on board as director, project proposals were coming in and D2P was in business. To date, 25 projects have gone through the Igniter program, which provides funding and guidance for projects at what Biondi calls the technical proof of concept stage. Much of the guidance comes from mentors-in-residence, experienced entrepreneurs that walk new innovators down the path to commercialization.

“For Igniter projects, they need to demonstrate that their innovation works, that they’re not just at an early idea stage,” explains Biondi. “Our commitment to those projects is to stay with them from initial engagement until one of three things happen: they become a startup company; they get licensed or we hand them over to WARF for licensing; or we determine this project might not be commercial after all.”

For projects that may not be destined for startup or that need some additional development before going to market, the collaboration between WARF and D2P becomes invaluable. WARF can patent and license discoveries that may not be a good fit for a startup company. They also provide money, called Accelerator funding, for projects that need some more proof of concept. Innovations that may not be ready for Igniter funds, but that are of potential interest to WARF, can apply for these funds to help them move through the earlier stages toward market.

“Some projects receive both Accelerator and Igniter funding,” says Cagan. “Some get funding from one and not the other. But we work together closely and the programs are being administered with a similar set of goals. We’re delighted by anything that helps grow entrepreneurial skills, companies and employment in this area.”

With support and funding from both WARF and D2P, entrepreneurship on campus is flourishing. While the first batch of Igniter funding has been allocated, Biondi is currently working to secure more funds for the future. In the meantime, he and others involved in the program make it clear that the other aspect of D2P—its mission to become a portal and resource for entrepreneurs on campus—is going strong.

“We want to be the go-to place where entrepreneurs come to ask questions on campus, the starting point for their quest down the entrepreneurial path,” says Biondi.

It’s a tall order, but it’s a goal that all those associated with D2P feel strongly about. Brian Fox, professor and chair of biochemistry at CALS and a D2P advisory board member, echoes Biondi’s thoughts.

“D2P was created to fill an important role on campus,” Fox says. “That is to serve as a hub, a knowledge base for all the types of entrepreneurship that might occur on campus and to provide expertise to help people think about moving from the lab to the market. That’s a key value of D2P.”

Over the past two years, D2P, in collaboration with WARF, has served as precisely that for the 25 Igniter projects and numerous other entrepreneurs looking for help, expertise and inspiration on their paths from innovation to market. The stories of these four CALS researchers serve to illustrate the program’s value.

Continue reading this story in the Summer 2016 issue of Grow magazine.

Banner photo: Shawn Kaeppler. Photo: Sevie Kenyon

Food research serendipity – Audio

Friday, May 6th, 2016

Research serendipity

Denise Ney, professor
Department of Nutritional Sciences
UW-Madison College of Agricultural and Life Sciences
(608) 262-4386

3:06 – Total Time

0:18 – Genetic disease research success
0:44 – Research mice with stronger bones, less fat
1:26 – Body weight and bone health
1:47 – Process now patented
2:11 – Market development expected
2:33 – May be on market soon
2:41 – Health beverage likely
2:57 – Lead out 

Sevie Kenyon: When research goes from one thing to another. We’re visiting today with Denise Ney, Department of Nutritional Sciences, University of Wisconsin-Madison in the College of Agricultural and Life Sciences and I’m Sevie Kenyon.

Denise your research has helped people with the disease called PKU, can you explain that disease and what your research is?

Denise Ney: Yes, we were trying to use a protein found in cheese whey, it’s called Glycomacropeptide to develop some new foods for a rare disease, called PKU. For the last five years, there have been, we call them medical foods available for people with PKU to all over the world.

Sevie Kenyon: Denise, a kind of a funny thing happened along the way while you were doing this research. Can you tell us what you found?

Denise Ney: We started out in our research studying mice, we had mice that had PKU and then we had their brothers and sister mice that did not have PKU and we made a discovery of an advantage of the GMP protein for both the wild type and the PKU mice. The mice that did not have PKU had less body fat and oxidized more fat. Besides less body fat, we also noticed that the bones had higher bone mineral density and were stronger.

Sevie Kenyon: Denise, what did these observations in the mice lead to?

Denise Ney: They made us realize that perhaps the Glycomacropeptide would provide use in the management of excess body weight, the treatment of obesity and also to help promote bone health, prevent osteoporosis, of course which is a large problem in women.

Sevie Kenyon: Denise, what did you do with your observations?

Denise Ney: I went to WARF and I discussed what I had found with the WARF staff. They said oh yeah we think we can patent this. And this led to a U.S. patent that was awarded last year. The patent is called Use of Glycomacropeptide to Improve Women’s Health.

Sevie Kenyon: What do you see becoming of this research?

Denise Ney: Our hope is that the patent will be licensed; that a company will decide to bring a product to market-a nutritional supplement-to assist in weight control and promotion of strong bones in women.

Sevie Kenyon: Denise, how long might it be before women are able to see these products on the market?

Denise Ney: It’s hard to say. I would like to see it in a year or two; and it’s possible.

Sevie Kenyon: Can you describe what this may look like in the market?

Denise Ney: I envision several beverages made out of the Glycomacropeptide. This is a whey-based protein, if you think about the athletic industry; I can envision a Glycomacropeptide whey-based beverage. It’s a supplement to a weight control diet.

Sevie Kenyon: We’ve been visiting with Denise Ney, Department of Nutritional Sciences, University of Wisconsin-Madison in the College of Agricultural and Life Sciences and I’m Sevie Kenyon.

Corn gene patented – Audio

Friday, April 29th, 2016

Flowering time gene for corn
Shawn Kaeppler, Professor
Department of Agronomy
UW-Madison College of Agricultural and Life Sciences
(608) 262-9571

3:00 – Total Time
0:11 – Why change the corn flowering date
0:24 – Using genetic analysis to manipulate gene
0:43 – Why use the flowering gene
1:15 – Flowering Time gene patent submitted
1:43 – Patenting process
2:08 – Benefits of WARF patent
2:26 – When will patented gene be available
2:37 – How much to license gene
2:52 – Lead out

Making ethanol production efficient – Audio

Friday, April 22nd, 2016

Making ethanol production efficient
James Steele, Professor
Department of Food Science
UW-Madison College of Agricultural and Life Sciences

2:55 – Total Time

0:11 – Role of bacteria
0:22 – Describe ethanol making process
0:45 – How is bacteria currently managed
1:02 – Current control process
1:15 – Solution to controlling bacteria
1:42 – Other benefits
1:55 – Will it improve yield
2:03 – How long before this technology is available
2:30 – What will your biotech company look like
2:40 – What is the market for this product
2:48 – Lead out

Sevie Kenyon:
Changing the efficiency of ethanol production. We’re visiting today with James Steele, Department of Food Science, University of Wisconsin-Madison in the College of Agricultural and Life Sciences and I’m Sevie Kenyon. Jim, start out by giving us an idea what the role of bacteria is in the ethanol process.

James Steele: Nothing good today. Yeast is there to be able to make the ethanol and the bacteria kind of steal from that yeast.

Sevie Kenyon: Can you describe, then, how that chokes the process of making ethanol?

James Steele: Well we have sugar in an ethanol plant that comes from the corn. And what we’re trying to do is then convert that sugar to ethanol using the yeast. If the bacteria competes with the yeast for that sugar it takes it to lactic acid and that’s bad because that’s not the product we want. Additionally, if enough lactic acid is produced, it will actually inhibit the yeast and stop the fermentation.

Sevie Kenyon: At this stage Jim, how is this lactic acid bacteria problem managed in an ethanol plant? Continue reading