could result in new opportunities
for the farmer
as well as help
advance Kentucky's New Economy.
...... . . . . . .
How Katie Hall Found a Career
In the spring of 2003, Katie Hall '03 was sitting in an ag biotech class when Joe Chappell, her teacher and the co-founder of Allylix, talked about the company's need for a student intern.
"I didn't even know he had a company," said Hall, an ag biotech major. Hall applied for the Allylix job, was accepted, and found herself on an educational fast track with pay to boot, learning about molecular biology and fermentation.
"Oh, wow, I learned a whole lot," Hall said. "I got a lot of experience in the lab, but I also learned about grant writing and networking," she said.
She credits her Allylix experience with helping her move to her current job at the Lexington arm of Neogen, an international company specializing in animal health products. (Several years ago, Neogen bought a start-up company that began with the work of Tom Tobin in the College's Department of Veterinary Science.)
Hall is one of more than 30 students who have taken advantage of the student internship program. It is sponsored by the Natural Products Alliance, a University initiative funded by the National Science Foundation to foster public-private efforts in natural products development.
ParaTechs, Phyllotech, and Allylix are among companies that have hired interns through the program.
Most intern positions are paid through a cost-share agreement between the company and the alliance. The program is open to undergraduates and recent graduates at UK and other schools across the state.
"We see it as a win-win situation," said Gabriel Wilmoth, project coordinator for the Natural Products Alliance. "The company gets an eager employee, and the intern gets experience in a start-up lab environment."
by Martha Jackson
They don't wear suits at the office—unless they're meeting with venture capitalists. They still have offices on campus, not in a corporate tower. And they are still PhDs.
But some faculty members in the College of Agriculture have taken their science to the marketplace in start-up companies. Here are some of those whose discoveries could lead to a vast array of new natural products, open up unforeseen job opportunities, and boost the state's economy.
"Lots of people study the human genome, but the genomes of the insect world have largely been ignored," said Bruce Webb, faculty member in the College's Department of Entomology.
No longer. Some of the latest work of ParaTechs, the company Webb helped to found in 2004, is basing much of its work on the study of a particular group of insect-infecting viruses called baculoviruses.
Webb knew that baculoviruses could be used, as can bacteria and yeast, to grow the all-important proteins that are used in some natural products. Research in his lab has resulted in a way, he said, "to make that process work five or 10 times better."
The now-patented technology discovered in Webb's lab produces not one, but two proteins—one that keeps the cell alive (so it can produce more proteins) and a second protein for commercial or research use, which is good news to biomanufacturing industries.
The possibilities for use of this technology are many—lower cost protein production for vaccines and other medicines, for agriculture, and for the ever-expanding bank of proteins needed by researchers.
In other research, Webb and Indu Maiti at the Kentucky
Tobacco Research and Development Center are working on genes from an insect virus that inhibits insect growth (called a polydnavirus).
works with UK
in his lab.
They theorize that plants such as corn and soybeans could be modified with genes from this polydnavirus to protect them from caterpillars that feed on plants.
Their work could result in a natural, safe, and target-specific insecticide that is made by the plant. It's an option not unlike Bt (Bacillus thuringiensis), a naturally occurring bacteria that makes an insecticidal protein. Bt has been used for the past decade in corn and other crops to protect them against many insect pests.
Think of the taste of lemon-lime soda. Or the scent of a citrusy after-shave or specialty soap, even dishwasher detergent. Think of a thousand things that remind you of sunshine or Florida fruit. It just may be that what you smell or taste is something that could be manufactured with a substance called nootkatone.
Right now, manufacturers have to obtain nootkatone from grapefruit peel. The process takes time and money, and yields are limited. But maybe not for long, if the company Allylix takes off.
Joe Chappell, in the Department of Plant and Soil Sciences, helped found Allylix in 2002.
The scientific research that propels the company has focused on understanding, at the molecular level, a group of chemical compounds called terpenes, natural chemicals found in plants that are used in foods, fragrances, medicines, even insect repellents.
Because Chappell and his scientific colleagues at Allylix understand how terpenes are produced naturally, they can re-engineer the process to produce a wide range of the terpenes in very pure form.
Then, using Allylix's trademarked production platform—a yeast fermentation process—they can produce these terpenes at low cost.
Allylix, which now has six patents, plans to put nootkatone on the market by next year. By 2010, the company plans to launch four other products—three fragrances and an insect repellent.
Start-Up for Agriculture
When start-ups such as ParaTechs and Allylix reach the mainstream, somebody will have to supply the raw material or the growth medium for the new natural products they sell.
That somebody could be Kentucky's farmers. The Kentucky Tobacco Research and Development Center (KTRDC) supports ideas and start-ups that involve plant-made products. Its aim is to help the state's producers benefit from ag biotech. So, in a sense, the center is itself a kind of start-up for the state's agriculture.
Its historical focus on tobacco has morphed into something broader in recent years.
"We've got other programs at UK for our tobacco farmers who are moving into vegetables and into businesses such as shrimp and goats," said Maelor Davies, the center's director.
"We're not about that," he said. "The KTRDC wants to help researchers and start-ups find market niches where suppliers currently don't exist. We're interested in new applications of plants for new markets."
That means the center is just as apt to work with faculty in another College as it is faculty from the College of Agriculture—and it does, providing funding and agricultural support. One of these cross-disciplinary companies is Naprogenix, which has commercialized a technology that enables it to screen (or "bio-prospect") Kentucky native plants for molecules that could lead to plant-based medicines and natural insecticides. Naprogenix is based on the research of former College of Ag faculty member Deane Falcone (now at the University of Massachusetts-Lowell) and John Littleton, who is in the College of Medicine.
Yaupon Therapeutics, like Naprogenix, also has benefited from KTRDC support. Yaupon works with pharmaceuticals licensed from academic laboratories. It was founded on the research of Linda Dwoskin and Peter Crooks in UK's College of Pharmacy. Two of Yaupon's products now under development, lobeline and nornicotine, are based on plants that could be grown in Kentucky—lobeline from lobelia and nornicotine from a botanical relative of tobacco. Lobeline is being tested as a treatment for methamphetamine addiction, and nornicotine could help people quit smoking.
The center awards grants and supplies know-how on patents, licensing, and other entrepreneurial basics for faculty who are navigating the new world of business.
Work space is available through the Agricultural Technologies Commercialization Center (AgTeCC) at the KTRDC, an incubator where start-ups can rent greenhouse space along with office and lab space.
The lab of George Wagner in the Department of Plant and Soil Sciences has received KTRDC funding. In 2004, Wagner and Ryan Shepherd (PhD in plant physiology, '05) founded the start-up Phyllotech, which is in its early stages.
Wagner has identified a protein on the surface of Nicotania tobacco that prevents germination of spores in blue mold, a fungus that can devastate tobacco crops. Shepherd carried out the genetic work that could eventually lead to the protein's commercial manufacture.
Wagner believes the science has application for turfgrasses.
"We'd like to produce a natural product fungicide and figure out all the ways it could be useful," he said.
More than Science
Scientists in the College of Agriculture and other colleges across campus are providing trailblazing science as the basis for start-ups, but any of them would tell you it takes more than that to thrive.
For one thing, it takes money. The KTRDC has provided seed grants to faculty across campus for University research that is generating these start-ups. ParaTechs has run in part on two federal grants. Allylix was funded initially by research grants and then secured $1.5 million in venture capital funding.
It also takes business savvy. Allylix and ParaTechs are among those University start-ups that have business managers at the top.
The Van Allmen Center for Entrepreneurship in the Gatton College of Business and Economics also provides business know-how. It is a resource for faculty entrepreneurs across campus, helping them assess their ideas, develop business plans, and connect with funding sources.
Fledgling ag biotech businesses could have benefits for everybody.
"Start-ups and spin-offs could result in new opportunities for the farmer as well as help advance Kentucky's New Economy," said Davies, talking about the state's initiatives to compete in the 21st century's global, high-tech marketplace.