THREE YEARS AGO, Bryan Renk was director of licensing at the Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation when an intriguing new technology hit his desk. Developed in the lab of animal sciences professor Mark Cook, the process derived a powder from eggs that boosted the nutrition of animal feeds. Renk liked the idea so much that he joined the company. He’s now chief executive officer of aOva Technologies, which is selling its feed additive to chicken, hog and fish producers across the country.
You spent a long time working with WARF. How did technology transfer lead to a job transfer?
Well, for me, the first transition was moving from my family’s seed business, which has a long history in Wisconsin and a long history working with the university. So when I went to WARF, I was initially focused on helping WARF work with ag biotech and biotech companies. But later on, as my career there developed, I got to see all these start-ups happening. We were putting the deals together and doing the paperwork, and we could watch the whole evolution. After a while, you start thinking, can I do that? Would it be fun, and would the challenge be there?
I’m sure you saw a lot of different promising technologies. What made aOva the right one for you?
One thing was the professor (co-founder Mark Cook). He had a great track record of commercializing technology, and we thought this had a good chance of success. And it was in agriculture, so my background was a good fit.
Do you think coming from an agricultural background helped prepare you for the uncertainty of running a business?
I think the answer has to be yes. The risk in agriculture is huge. You have to deal with Mother Nature, and you have to come up with solutions in a lot of different situations where there really isn’t an existing answer. Most of the people I’ve known in agriculture are great problem solvers, and they’re solving problems in so many different specialties. You get to cross over a lot, and that’s great training.
Tell me about the name aOva.
Well, the company used to be called Ovatech, but there was some confusion with other existing technologies. So when I came on board, we changed it to aOva Technologies. The small “a” denotes “antibody,” and “Ova” means “egg”—and that’s basically what we do.
You make antibodies in eggs?
Yes. We produce a vaccine that causes hens to produce a particular antibody in their eggs, and then we turn those eggs into a powder that can be used as an ingredient in livestock feed. The antibody works on an enzyme in the immune cascade, which prevents the animal’s immune system from going into overdrive. Basically, we think that animals and humans are overbuilt in terms of their immune response—when it kicks in,it takes away energy from the body and the animal is less efficient in its ability to grow. But this disrupts that function so that the animal can still fight off stresses without using so much energy.
And I imagine that’s appealing to producers.
It is. With feed prices increasing, they’re concerned about feed efficiency, and we think we can help them use less feed to get growth. We also think it can add some health benefits, like helping use minerals better in their diets and reducing phosphorus in excretions.
So you really are a growth business.
We hope so. So far the trend is positive.