To Market, to Market

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.

“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.

Reducing Antibiotics in Food Animals

Animal sciences professor Mark Cook, in addition to helping establish D2P, has a long record of innovation and entrepreneurship. His latest endeavor, a product that has the potential to do away with antibiotics in animals used for food, could have huge implications for the animal industry. And as he explains it, the entire innovation was unintentional.

“It was kind of a mistake,” he says with a laugh. “We were trying to make an antibody”—a protein used by the immune system to neutralize pathogens—“that would cause gut inflammation in chickens and be a model for Crohn’s disease or inflammatory bowel disease.”

To do this, Cook’s team vaccinated hens so they would produce a particular antibody that could then be sprayed on feed of other chickens. That antibody is supposed to cause inflammation in the chickens that eat the food. The researchers’ model didn’t appear to work. Maybe they had to spark inflammation, give it a little push, they thought. So they infected the birds with a common protozoan disease called coccidia.

“Jordan Sand, who was doing this work, came to me with the results of that experiment and again said, ‘It didn’t work,’” explains Cook. “When I looked at the data, I saw it was just the opposite of what we expected. The antibody had protected the animals against coccidia, the main reason we feed antibiotics to poultry. We knew right away this was big.”

The possibilities of such an innovation—an antibiotic-free method for controlling disease—are huge as consumers demand antibiotic-free food and companies look for ways to accommodate those demands. With that potential in hand, things moved quickly for Cook and Sand. They filed patents through WARF, collaborated with faculty colleagues and conducted experiments to test other animals and determine the best treatment methods. More research was funded through the WARF Accelerator program, and it became clear that this technology could provide the basis for a startup company.

While Cook didn’t receive funds from D2P to bring the product to market, he and Sand used D2P’s consulting services throughout their work—and continue to do so. Between WARF funding and help from D2P, Cook says starting the current company, Ab E Discovery, has been dramatically different from his previous startup experiences.

“D2P is a game changer,” says Cook. “In other cases, there was no structure on campus to help. When you had a technology that wasn’t going to be licensed, you had to figure out where to get the money to start a company. There were no resources available, so you did what you could, through trial and error, and hoped. Now with WARF and D2P working together, there’s both technical de-risking and market de-risking.”

The combination of WARF and D2P has certainly paid off for Cook and Sand. They have a team and a CEO, and are now producing product. Interest in the product is immense, Cook says. He’d like to see the company grow and expand—and stay in Wisconsin.

“It’s been a dream of mine to make Wisconsin a centerpiece in this technology,” Cook says. “I’d like to see the structure strong here in Wisconsin, so that even when it’s taken over, it’ll be a Wisconsin company. That’s my hope.”

Better Corn for Biofuel

Corn is a common sight in Wisconsin and the upper Midwest, but it’s actually more of a tropical species. As the growing regions for corn move farther north, a corn hybrid has to flower and mature more quickly to produce crop within a shorter growing season. That flowering time is determined by the genetics of the corn hybrid.

Conversely, delayed flowering is beneficial for other uses of corn. For example, when flowering is delayed, corn can produce more biomass instead of food, and that biomass can then be used as raw material to make biofuel.

The genetics of different hybrids controls their flowering time and, therefore, how useful they are for given purposes or growing regions. Shawn Kaeppler, a professor of agronomy, is working to better understand those genes and how various hybrids can best fit a desired function. Much of his work is done in collaboration with fellow agronomy professor Natalia de Leon.

“We look across different populations and cross plants to produce progeny with different flowering times,” Kaeppler explains. “Then we use genetic mapping strategies to understand which genes are important for those traits.”

Throughout his work with plant genetics, Kaeppler has taken full advantage of resources for entreprenuers on campus. He has patents filed or pending, and he has also received Accelerator funds through WARF. For his project looking at the genetics behind flowering time, Kaeppler and graduate student Brett Burdo received Igniter funds from D2P as well. The Igniter program has proven invaluable for Kaeppler and Burdo as they try to place their innovation in the best position for success.

“I found the Igniter program very useful, to go through the process of understanding what it takes to get a product to market,” says Kaeppler. “It also includes funding for some of the steps in the research and for some of the time that’s spent. I can’t fund my graduate student off a federal grant to participate in something like this, so the Igniter funding allowed for correct portioning of funding.”

The end goal of Kaeppler’s project is to develop a transgenic plant as a research model and license the technology, not develop a startup company. His team is currently testing transgenic plants to work up a full package of information that interested companies would use to decide if they should license the technology. For Kaeppler, licensing is the best option since they can avoid trying to compete with big agricultural companies, and the technology will still get out to the market where it’s needed to create change.

“In this area of technology transfer, it is important not only to bring resources back to UW but also to participate in meeting the challenges the world is facing with increasing populations,” says Kaeppler. “Programs like D2P and WARF are critical at this point in time to see the potential of these discoveries realized.”

A Diet to Treat Disease

Around the world, about 60,000 people are estimated to have phenylketonuria, or PKU. Those with the inherited disorder are unable to process phenylalanine, a compound found in most foods. Treatment used to consist of a limited diet difficult to stomach. Then, about 13 years ago, nutritional sciences professor Denise Ney was approached to help improve that course of treatment.

Dietitians at UW–Madison’s Waisman Center wanted someone to research use of a protein isolated from cheese whey—called glycomacropeptide, or GMP—as a dietary option for people living with PKU. Ney took on the challenge, and with the help of a multidisciplinary team, a new diet composition for PKU patients was patented and licensed.

“Mine is not a typical story,” says Ney, who also serves as a D2P advisory board member. “Things happened quickly and I can’t tell you why, other than hard work, a good idea and the right group of people. We’ve had help from many people—including our statistician Murray Clayton, a professor of plant pathology and statistics, and the Center for Dairy Research—which helped with development of the foods and with sensory analysis.”

Being at the right place at the right time had a lot to do with her success thus far, Ney notes. “I’m not sure this could have happened many places in the world other than on this campus because we have all the needed components—the Waisman Center for care of patients with PKU, the Wisconsin Center for Dairy Research, the clinical research unit at University of Wisconsin Hospitals and Clinics, and faculty with expertise in nutritional sciences and food science,” she says.

Ney is currently wrapping up a major clinical trial of the food formulations, referred to as GMP medical foods, that she and her team developed. In addition to those efforts, the new diet has also shown surprising promise in two other, seemingly unrelated, areas: weight loss and osteoporosis prevention.

“My hypothesis, which has been borne out with the research, is that GMP will improve bone strength and help prevent fractures, which are complications of PKU,” explains Ney. “I have a comprehensive study where I do analysis of bone structure and biomechanical performance, and I also get information about body fat. I observed that all of the mice that were fed GMP, whether they had PKU or not, had less body fat and the bones were bigger and stronger.” Interestingly, the response was greater in female compared with male mice.

To support further research on this new aspect of the project, Ney received Accelerator funds from WARF for a second patent issued in 2015 titled “Use of GMP to Improve Women’s Health.” Ney and her team, including nutritional sciences professor Eric Yen, are excited about the possibilities of food products made with GMP that may help combat obesity and also promote bone health in women.

“There is a huge market for such products,” says Ney. “We go from a considerably small group of PKU patients who can benefit from this to a huge market of women if this pans out. It’s interesting, because I think I’m kind of an unexpected success, an illustration of the untapped potential we have here on campus.”

Fewer Antibiotics in Ethanol Plants

Bacteria and the antibiotics used to kill them can cause significant problems in everything from food sources to biofuel. In biofuel production plants, bacteria that produce lactic acid compete with the wanted microbes producing ethanol. At low levels, these bacteria decrease ethanol production. At high levels, they can produce so much lactic acid that it stops fermentation and ethanol production altogether.

The most obvious solution for stopping these lactic acid bacteria would be antibiotics. But as in other industries, antibiotics can cause problems. First, they can be expensive for ethanol producers to purchase and add to their workflow. The second issue is even more problematic.

“A by-product of the ethanol industry is feed,” explains James Steele, a professor of food science. “Most of the corn kernel goes toward ethanol and what remains goes to feed. And it’s excellent animal feed.”

But if antibiotics are introduced into the ethanol plant, that animal feed byproduct can’t truly be called antibioticfree. That’s a problem as more and more consumers demand antibiotic-free food sources. But Steele and his colleagues have a solution—a way to block the negative effects of lactic acid bacteria without adding antibiotics.

“We’ve taken the bacteria that produce lactic acid and re-engineered it to produce ethanol,” says Steele. “These new bacteria, then, compete with the lactic acid bacteria and increase ethanol production. Ethanol plants can avoid the use of antibiotics, eliminating that cost and increasing the value of their animal feed by-product.”

The bacteria that Steele and his team have genetically engineered can play an enormous role in reducing antibiotic use. But that benefit of their innovation didn’t immediately become their selling point. Rather, their marketing message was developed through help from D2P and the Igniter program.

“Learning through D2P completely changed how we position our product and how we interact with the industry,” says Steele. And through that work with D2P, Steele plans to later this year incorporate a company called Lactic Solutions. “D2P has helped us with the finance, the organization, the science, everything. Every aspect of starting a business has been dealt with.”

Steele and his collaborators are now working to refine their innovation and ideas for commercialization using Accelerator funds from WARF. Steele’s work, supported by both WARF and D2P, is a perfect example of how the entities are working together to successfully bring lab work to the market.

“There is no doubt in my mind that we would not be where we are today without D2P,” says Steele. “On top of that you add WARF, and the two together is what really makes it so special. There’s nothing else like it at other campuses.”

With such a strong partnership campaigning for and supporting entrepreneurship at UW–Madison, CALS’ strong history of innovation is poised to endure far into the future, continuing to bring innovations from campus to the world. And that is the embodiment of the Wisconsin Idea.

 

Stewarding Our Soil

Our planet and its 7 billion people face a number of challenges, many of them concerning providing enough food and water for a growing population. And soil science plays a fundamental role in meeting those challenges.

“Since most of our food comes from the land that filters our waters and we are solely dependent on this planet, we will have to manage it wisely,” notes Alfred Hartemink, a professor of soil science.

A new funding stream has opened at CALS to help students learn to do just that. Fittingly, it is named after a scholar whose contributions to soil science are internationally renowned and whose teaching style served as an inspiration to generations of students: Francis D. Hole (1913–2002), a professor of soil science and geography.

Among his many achievements, Hole made great contributions to understanding the formation and distribution of soils in Wisconsin. He wrote a seminal book on the soils of Wisconsin and led a grassroots campaign to have Antigo silt loam named Wisconsin’s state soil.

The F.D. Hole Soil Studies and Expedition Endowment will be used to offer hands-on learning experiences for students, in the spirit of Hole’s oft-quoted belief that we should “read each landscape for practical purposes or simply for the pleasure of it.”

“Given the upsurge in soil science we need to make sure that our graduates have field knowledge about the soils of Wisconsin,” says Hartemink. “The fruits of this endowment will be used to enhance field-based studies in the light and vision of Francis Hole. As with many things in life it all starts with fascination and curiosity. The endowment will help foster our students’ fascination for the natural resource upon which we all depend—the soil.”

To help support the F.D. Hole Soil Studies and Expedition Endowment, visit: http://supportuw.org/giveto/soilsstudy.

The UW Foundation maintains more than 6,000 gift funds that provide critical resources for the educational and research activities of CALS.

Quenching with Less

Doug Soldat thinks there are better things to do with Wisconsin’s drinking water than use it to grow grass.

Nationwide, landscape irrigation sucks up about seven billion gallons of potable water on an average day—and probably two-thirds of that get sprinkled on home lawns, the CALS/UW-Extension soil scientist and turfgrass specialist estimates. Adding to the problem: We tend to all do it at the same time, particularly during hot, dry spells.

“The issue is reducing peak demand in municipal areas,” Soldat says. “As we put in more lawns and irrigation systems, we’re seeing higher peak demand, which means we have to build more wells and water towers.”

Soldat is looking at several strategies to address the issue. He’s got downspouts at the O.J. Noer Facility for Turfgrass Research flowing into the mother of all rain barrels, a 4,000-gallon underground reservoir that can see the center’s large lawn through a lengthy dry spell. He’s also developing guidelines for irrigating lawns with treated waste-water. That’s common in arid regions, and he suspects it will work even better in Wisconsin, where there’s ample rainfall to flush the soil of any salts the wastewater carries.

But one of the simplest solutions is to plant grass varieties that need less irrigation than, for example, Kentucky bluegrass, the most commonly planted grass in Wisconsin. One of the most promising, he says, is tall fescue.

“It has about the same water needs as Kentucky bluegrass, but its deeper roots give it access to more water in the soil,” Soldat explains. “It has double or triple the root mass of Kentucky bluegrass, so you could potentially double or triple the amount of time before you need to irrigate.”

Just how the two will match up during a dry spell is something Soldat is testing this summer. He’s growing several cultivars of each, along with a couple of other species, under severe drought conditions. That’s not easy in Wisconsin, where droughts are short and unpredictable. So he’s inducing drought with a rainout shelter—a 2,500-square-foot vinyl canopy on tracks. It sits off to the side when the sun is shining, but at the first hint of rain, it rolls into place to keep plots dry.

The drought tolerance work is part of a larger effort by the UW turf management team to provide information on reduced-impact lawn care strategies that work in Wisconsin. They offer suggestions in a new publication, “Organic and Reduced-Risk Lawn Care,” available at UW-Extension county offices or online at learningstore.uwex.edu.

Michael D. Johnson

Johnson is head of biological research and development for Syngenta Crop Protection, part of a global agribusiness company that markets seeds and pesticides. Johnson’s department designs and conducts the efficacy and crop safety field-testing of research and developmental products for Syngenta’s crop protection business in the U.S. “I enjoy being able to identify technical issues or opportunities facing Syngenta or our growers and then enable our talented team of field scientists to objectively break them into actionable pieces and address them,” says Johnson.

Terry Kurth

“Turfgrass is the Rodney Dangerfield of the environment. It gets no respect,” Terry Kurth humorously observes. That said, Kurth has had a highly respectable career managing turfgrass, which he regards as a “simple environmental hero” for its properties as a soil pollutant sponge and filter of air impurities. He is currently the director of development for U.S. operations of Weed Man lawn care. Prior to that he spent decades building and expanding franchises of Barefoot Grass Lawn Service, which he operated in Wisconsin, Illinois, Kentucky and Texas before selling the business to TruGreen/Chemlawn. Kurth shows his dedication to quality research by partnering with the Wisconsin Landscape Federation to fund the Terry and Kathleen Kurth Wisconsin Distinguished Graduate Fellowship in Turfgrass Management.

 

Sabrina R. Mueller-Spitz

Mueller-Spitz’s interest in soil led to a fascination with the microbial communities found there—and to a Ph.D. in microbiology. As a professor at the University of Wisconsin–Oshkosh, Mueller-Spitz imparts those interests to her students. “My favorite part of teaching is fostering wonder and providing a wider understanding of new topics in microbiology, environmental problems that threaten human health and understanding how epidemiology is used to assess and improve human health,” she says.

Donald W. Owens

For 34 years Owens has headed Earth Dimensions, Inc., a soils and environmental consulting firm based in upstate New York. In one of his earliest projects, he conducted soil sampling at the Love Canal chemical waste dump that shed light on the seriousness of contamination there and helped lead to a national overhaul of sampling protocol at contaminated sites. Besides running his business, Owens is an avid traveler, often melding trips with his interest in soils. On a recent bird-watching tour in Antarctica he had hoped to get his first glimpse of gelisol (soils formed in permafrost), the only soil order that he has not yet seen, but that didn’t happen. “What a great excuse for a tour to the Arctic in the future!” he says.

Zachary Reineking

Reineking is head superintendent and project manager at Erin Hills Golf Course in Hartford, which in August hosted the U.S. Amateur Championship—the first to be played in Wisconsin—and in 2017 will host the U.S. Open, an honor that marks the course’s “meteoric rise” in the golf world, noted the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. Coordinating preparation with the U.S. Golf Association is part of Reineking’s job, along with overseeing a staff of 35 in all ground maintenance and construction projects (recently he coordinated and supervised a $4 million course renovation). “On a daily basis I am required to be an HR director, accountant, plant pathologist, entomologist and soil scientist. Not many fields can give you that variety,” Reineking says.

Matthew Repking

Repking’s “office” is the sprawling 2,000-acre complex that comprises CALS’ Arlington Agricultural Research Station, where Repking works as assistant superintendent. As with the 11 other research stations, Arlington serves as an outdoor laboratory, classroom and community education center. Repking is responsible for nutrient management planning, soil fertility, crop rotations, crop production, assisting researchers and Wisconsin Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (WPDES) compliance. “My favorite part of the position is to see how things continually evolve and the wide variety of research that is performed at Arlington,” he says.

Amy Sausen

As a landscape and environmental projects coordinator for the Bruce Company, a landscape company and garden center in Middleton, Sausen wears a few different hats. On the landscape side, she designs and coordinates the installation of mostly residential landscape projects. On the environmental side, she oversees the company’s organic product lines, which include rain garden design and construction and creating “living walls,” which she calls “a green alternative to conventional slope stabilization.” Sausen remains grateful that in her junior year she added a soil science degree to her degree in horticulture: “The extra knowledge I gained from learning about soil chemistry, soil physics and nutrition has been absolutely invaluable in my career,” she says.

Peter J. Huettl

Huettl is a principal scientist/engineer with Applied Science, Inc., a Madison-based engineering consulting firm that primarily serves agribusinesses (clients include food, feed and fuel producers and processors). The company creates systems for the sustainable treatment and utilization of by-products associated with processing and specializes in soil treatment and cropland recovery of plant nutrients. “Our philosophy is to achieve maximum economic recovery and reuse of production residuals and minimize the mass or concentration of residuals that enter the atmosphere, groundwater or surface water,” says Huettl.

Caroline van Schaik

As a community-based food systems program organizer for the Minnesota nonprofit Land Stewardship Project, van Schaik catalyzes farmer initiatives related to buying and selling good food grown close to home, focusing on distribution and infrastructure. She coordinates events that encourage eaters to buy that food—as parents, school cooks, food service workers and chefs—and trains farmers to take better advantage of the national interest in buying from them. “My driver is land use fueled by a zeal for practical applications that work for ordinary people and the myriad of small- and mid-sized farmers who raise a lot of food we ought to be eating,” she says. In her free time, van Schaik and her family raise grass-fed sheep.