Technopreneurs: These scientists mean business
by Randy Weckman
In the fresh, new world of high technology, entrepreneurship has taken on a new nuance, if not a new meaning. Forget the railroad, steel, and oil barons of the 1890s, the manufacturing moguls like Henry Ford of the 1920s, and the industrialist Howard Hughes of the 1940s, whose personal fortunes rivaled those of third world countries. Entrepreneurship is now prized as a means to stimulate economic growth generally. And several College of Agriculture faculty are becoming entrepreneurs as part of their role as scientists, shepherding their research from discovery to application and stimulating Kentucky's economy along the way.
While faculty entrepreneurship won't likely be a path to personal wealth for the scientists, it nonetheless continues the land-grant tradition of translating discovery research to practical application. “These entrepreneurs also are
keeping our research, teaching, and
Extension programs on the cutting edge,” said Scott Smith, associate dean for research in the UK College of Agriculture.
Take agricultural engineer Fred Payne and animal scientist Clair Hicks, who together have developed a technology to help cheese makers know when to separate curds from whey. Now, that's not going to set the cell phone business on its ear, but their method is a boon to manufacturers of cheese.
Prior to the Payne and Hicks electronic sensor, cheese makers depended on a human pulling a spatula over the top of the curing cheese to see if the “feel” of the drag of the spatula across the cheese would indicate it was time to separate the curds from the whey.
Unfortunately, that meant a lot of cheese of poor quality due to the inefficiency of the human “sensor.” Early separation results in loss of much of the protein and fat that give cheese its texture and richness, while waiting too long to separate the curds and whey results in poor quality cheese. [Curds are the milk solids left after the fermentation process; whey is the liquid portion that is discarded from cheese making, but which is used as an ingredient in livestock feed.]
The Payne-Hicks sensor takes the guesswork out of the separation process. The scientists have developed a light meter that measures the reflection of light from the cheese, which is a precise indicator of when the curds and whey can be separated for optimal quality of the cheese.
One small Kentucky manufacturer adopted the device and found that losses due to less-than-precise separation of the curds and whey dropped 20 percent, which saved the small company $150,000 in one year— considerably less than the cost of installing the precision instrument in the manufacturing line.
The device invented by Payne and Hicks led to the creation of Reflectronics, Inc., a company they formed to market the technology worldwide. While sales continue to be slow, according to Payne, the interest by the cheese manufacturing industry continues to increase.
“It's sort of like a roller coaster; you start up the hill pretty slow then you pick up speed. Interest continues to escalate,” he said.
He pointed out that testing is underway in both Germany and Australia and that the University of Murcia in Spain is testing the apparatus on goat milk products.
“We're still a start-up company with hopes of becoming a bigger company. We're also exploring other uses for the sensing technology and those tests right now look pretty promising,” Payne said.
As a result of the promising research, UST leased space from ASTeCC; hired employees for the start-up company; equipped the laboratory; renovated facilities for the research; and operated the lab, with consultation from Chappell, Collins, and Nielsen.
(From Left to Right) Fred Payne, Clair Hicks
|The collaboration among a team of University of Kentucky agronomists— Mark Nielsen,
Glenn Collins, and Joseph Chappell— led to the development of GenApps, a tobacco planting breeding subsidiary of U.S. Tobacco Company (UST). Their research, funded by UST, showed exciting potential for use in genetic engineering of tobacco plants.
[ASTeCC (Advanced Science and Technology Commercialization Center) was developed by the University of Kentucky as an incubator for multidisciplinary collaborations and start-up ventures, ones that have potential to grow. It provides research space, as well as research instruments for UK faculty for new, for-profit, high technology businesses until they grow enough to move out into the world on their own.]
After just over three years in the ASTeCC incubator, UST decided to locate the laboratory in permanent facilities in Winchester, at the site of Rickard's Seeds, a long-established Winchester family-owned seed production facility that had been recently purchased by UST.
"Our goal at GenApps,” Nielsen said, “is to develop tobacco varieties, including burley, dark, and flue cured, that will be more disease resistant, produce higher yields, and have better handling qualities, using both traditional as well as molecular approaches.”
Glenn Collins, one of the principal investigators with the project that eventually led to GenApps, said that the experience of working on the project was great for both him and his students.
“As an academic scientist, I find that interactions with private companies and their scientists offer many opportunities for me and my students. The financial support from private companies continues to be important in carrying out our research and training mission. Second, interactions with private company scientists give all of us in the academic community a different perspective, which is important to me in guiding my students who graduate to work in private industry,” Collins said.
A very recent addition to the ASTeCC incubator is Venture Laboratories, the conjoint creation of Melissa Newman, her husband Kyle Newman, and Sharon Franklin. Newman and Franklin are assistant professors in the department of animal sciences. Kyle Newman is an employee of Venture Laboratories.
Venture Laboratories is working on a technique to enhance the rate of growth of the yeast used in the production of ethyl alcohol. The technique involves using a naturally occurring chemical to increase yeast growth by up to 25 percent, which, if commercially practical, would be a boon to fuel production from fermented corn.
“We are in large-scale testing of the technique. Our goal is to perfect the technique and sell the rights to another company for marketing,” Newman said.
The group also is researching ways to modify the bacteria in animals' gastrointestinal (GI) tracts.
“Some bacteria are good in that they aid in digestion, especially in ruminants such as cattle and sheep; others help exclude harmful bacteria from the GI tract. If we can devise the means by which we can alter the microflora of the GI tract in animals, we may lessen our dependence on antibiotics that are commonly used prophylactically,” Newman said.
Newman and Venture Laboratories also are looking into the use of mannanoligosaccharides— a technical term for complex strands of sugar— as a feed additive to help production animals rid themselves of harmful bacteria.
“We know that these lumpy, sticky sugar chains have a tendency to attract some harmful bacteria that normally would attach themselves to the intestinal wall of animals and cause disease. Salmonella, for example, can be fooled into believing that the sugar chains are the lining of the intestine. Once they latch onto the sugar, they stick to it and are passed out of the gut without harm to the animal,” she said.
Finally, Venture Laboratories is investigating the composition of sludge, such as that coming from intensive swine production or from dairy herds.
animals.The cows also transfer long chain omega-3 fatty acids into the milk and that helps keep hearts healthy. Butter, yogurt, and milk from these contain the compounds. And no, the products don't taste like fish.
“Bacteria break down manure, but the process stinks. We believe we can adjust the mix of the bacteria in the lagoon and make it both more efficient and less smelly. That's a good neighbor policy that many hog producers would appreciate,” Newman said.
Franklin is working on a separate technology that may provide substantial benefits to consumers and farmers alike. She is developing milk products that have cancer-preventing and heart-healthy properties. Cows fed fish oil in their rations produce milk that contains high concentrations of conjugated linoleolic acid, which has been shown to help prevent cancer, at least in laboratory
“Our tests have shown that the products from these cows are acceptable to consumers, as far as taste is concerned,” Franklin said.
Franklin sees these techniques helping Kentucky's farmers replace at least some of the lost income from the decreased tobacco quota.
“Right now, we don't have any idea of the marketing potential for these products. Our guess is that such milk from dairies will bring a premium from manufacturers of milk products,” Franklin said. Leigh Maynard, agricultural economist, is working on the marketing potential for these products.
What started as a solution to a nettlesome problem a few years ago now has become a thriving business in Lexington. In the mid-1980s, the Kentucky State Racing Commission and the Equine Drug Council asked Gluck Equine Research Center toxicologist Tom Tobin to help solve the problem of illegal narcotic drugs being used on race horses to enhance their performance.
Using his veterinary toxicology acumen, coupled with the expertise of UK chemist David Watt and that of Dan Tai of the UK College of Pharmacy, Tobin and his co-workers developed a panel of ELISA (enzyme-linked immunosorbant assay) tests to detect more than 100 drugs that might be used by unscrupulous trainers in their racing animals.
When they first started selling the kits out of the Gluck Center in 1989, the trio sold $12,000 worth of kits in the first three months; soon, sales were totaling $50,000 per month. The business was too big to continue as a “back room” operation. So the company— now called WTT (Watt-Tai-Tobin)— moved off campus.
Neogen Corporation purchased the thriving business in 1992. Now 50 people are employed in Elisa Technologies, the Lexington branch of Neogen Corporation. Its stock is traded on the NASDAQ .
Equine Biodiagnostics, Inc. is another veterinary sciences entrepreneurial success. Former Gluck researcher David Granstrom developed an antibody test to detect exposure to equine protozoal myeloencephalitis (EPM), a neurological disease than can cripple horses.
At first, Granstrom offered the test out of his laboratory in the Gluck Equine Research Center. By 1995, the demand for the test— the western blot test— necessitated that Granstrom move out of Gluck and into the ASTeCC facility, where commercialization of the technique took place in his company, Equine Biodiagnostics. Four years later the company moved again, this time to facilities at Coldstream Park which were built to house the laboratory that now employs six people.
“Kentucky Technology, Inc. now owns the company and we continue to provide EPM diagnostic services worldwide,” said Jennifer Morrow, laboratory director.
Currently, two other companies have begun offering testing for EPM and Morrow knows that Equine Biodiagnostics will need to expand its market with other diagnostic tests to remain in business.
“Right now, our 24-hour turnaround time for testing is well appreciated in the industry and gives us a competitive edge,” she said.
Still, Morrow knows that things could change quickly.
“We occupy a niche market— a lucrative market— but its viability could change rapidly, either through the development of a vaccine or through increased competition,” Morrow said.
Soon after Granstrom discovered the cause of EPM, he set out to find a treatment for it and conferred with veterinary toxicologist Tom Tobin, who suggested that one of the unique qualities of the protozoa that causes the disease could be the target for its eradication.
Their treatment, which has proved successful in treating the disease, relies on taking advantage of a historic genetic “accident” in the tiny parasite. About 800 million years ago, the protozoa acquired a chloroplast in its genetic makeup that allows it to function. When the researchers discovered that fact, they were able to use a chemical that is commonly used in weed control to deactivate the chloroplast. The herbicide formulation is specifically toxic to the protozoa in small doses, but is seemingly harmless to horses.
That discovery and effective treatment of the crippling disease became the beginning of New Ace Research Company, which is working as part of ASTeCC to develop a vaccine that will prevent the disease in the first place, Tobin said.
“Another goal of New Ace is to pioneer new technologies and improve the health and well being of horses, particularly through the development of therapeutics,” Tobin said.
Tobin, like the other entrepreneurs in the College of Agriculture, is excited about the possibilities of augmenting Kentucky's economic growth with the commercialization of high technology discoveries.
“Entrepreneurship is just an extension of what scientists in the College have been doing throughout its history. Commercialization will ensure that these discoveries help Kentucky's economy,” he said.
The College of Agriculture continues it's commitment to grow ideas and turn them into economic reality.