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MSU Announces 2016 and Winter 2017 MTRAC AgBio Tier II Starter Awardees

The Michigan Translational Research and Commercialization Program (MTRAC) Innovation Hub for AgBio at Michigan State University selected eleven awardees for grants focusing on key activities required to move technologies out of the lab and into marketable products or services. This program accelerates technology projects in AgBio toward commercialization.

 Jointly funded by MSU and the Michigan Strategic Fund, through the Michigan Economic Development Corporation’s Entrepreneur and Innovation Initiative, the MTRAC program provides project funding at a critical point with a laser focus on translational research toward the commercial market.

 “MTRAC provides the ability to advance research into the commercial market within academic institutions, health systems, and nonprofit research centers, leveraging what was built in the first three years at MSU to a statewide model,” said Denise Graves, MEDC University Relations Director. “In collaboration with MSU, industry, the venture capital community, and other stakeholders across the state, MTRAC will help to increase the number of startups, jobs, follow-on funding and industry licenses in Michigan.”

Awards through the MSU MTRAC Innovation Hub for AgBio Program are separated into two tiers. Tier I Full Awards are given annually and have budgets ranging up to $100K, to complete significant translational research activities. Tier II Starter Awards with maximum $25K budgets are reviewed twice annually. These projects are in stages of development that are likely, with funding, to generate finite achievements, such as moving the project toward a Tier I Full application or accomplishing a small but meaningful step in the commercialization path.

“We receive applications from around the state, and are delighted with the breadth and depth of content that this series of awardees represents,” said Karen Studer-Rabeler, Commercialization Program Director for the MTRAC Innovation Hub for AgBio at MSU. “From safer pesticide application and improved crop seed to protection of bees and healthy new snacks, each of these projects provide a novel approach to solving AgBio challenges.

All institutions of higher education, health systems and nonprofit research centers with an AgBio application are encouraged to participate and can learn more at the Innovation Hub for AgBio at MSU website.

2016 MTRAC AgBio Tier II Starter Awardees:

  • Dr. Venkatesh Balan has created a healthy snack alternative to conventional potato chips.  Dr. Balan’s mushroom crisps offer many nutritional benefits such as a high protein content, vitamins, and minerals, as well as delicious flavor.  The Tier II MTRAC award Dr. Balan received will be used to perform the nutritional content analysis and taste testing of the new snack.  He is engaging with a large consumer goods company who has interest in commercializing the technology.
  • Dr. Krishnamurthy Jayaraman has developed an improved food packaging film that provides improved clarity while providing a suitable barrier to both water vapor and oxygen.  With his Tier II MTRAC award, Dr. Jayaraman will be able to produce an improved batch of his film with reduced haze that can then be tested for durability and barrier properties.  The results of the MTRAC award will form the basis of discussions with film laminate and food packaging companies who may be interested in licensing the technology.
  • In an effort to combat drought and make farming on sandy soil possible, Dr. Alvin Smucker has invented Soil Water Retention Technology (SWRT).  A Tier II MTRAC has been awarded to Dr. Smucker to provide improvement upgrades to a chisel component on the test installation equipment.  Demonstrating success with these improvements through field performance will move the SWRT system forward toward the next prototype and commercialization.
  • Dr. Jonathan Walton has developed a new method to create both cyclic and bi-cyclic peptides that have the potential to be used to control harmful agricultural pests such as nematodes, insects, and fungi.  With his MTRAC Tier II award, Dr. Walton will hone the key bi-cyclic creation step that will enable their inclusion in libraries of peptides that can then be used by major agricultural companies in screening programs to test against their targets of interest. 
  • Molecules in a class known as proteasome inhibitors have been shown to be inhibitors of primary cell lines established from canine histiocytic sarcoma; however, the current clinically used proteasome inhibitors for humans are unsuitable for canine treatment due to their high cost and host toxicity. Dr. Vilma Yuzbasiyan-Gurkan and colleagues at MSU have developed an alternative orally available proteasome inhibitor that effectively inhibits tumor growth in mouse models and inhibits the growth of primary canine histiocytic sarcoma cells at low micromolar concentrations.  Using funds from a Tier II MTRAC award, Dr. Yuzbasiyan-Gurkan will synthesize enough of this compound to perform pharmacokinetic studies in mice (also part of the MTRAC award) and the initial clinical work in beagles (paid for using non-MTRAC funds).  This work enables her to take important steps toward development of a canine cancer treatment for broad use in veterinary medicine.   

Winter 2017 MTRAC AgBio Tier II Starter Awardees:

  • Biochar is a porous carbon material with a very large surface area derived from biomass pyrolysis.  Biochar is typically used for soil amendment; however, activated biochar/carbon has multiple advanced applications.  Dr. Qi Hua Fan has developed a new, more efficient process to activate biochar so that it can be used in applications such as water treatment, energy storage, and air purification.  Using Tier II MTRAC funds, Dr. Fan will demonstrate efficient activation of biochar using high-density plasmas in a manner which will guide the development of prototype equipment needed for the commercialization of this technology.
  • Dr. Patrick Smith proposes to help improve the honey bee population through his technology designed to protect bee hives from the parasitic mite, Varroa destructor.  With his MTRAC award, Dr. Smith will develop the prototype formulation and packaging for the delivery of a long-lasting, dose-regulated concentration of miticide to effectively eliminate the mites throughout their reproductive cycle.  If successful, this technology will provide safe and effective protection of bees against the most serious pest in the beekeeping industry.
  • Dr. Guo-qing Song received a Tier II MTRAC award to transform corn and soybean plants with an overexpression of an SOC1 gene to generate an increase in yield.  He has developed a plant technology that has been shown to increase seed production through promoted flowering and reduced plant height in demonstration plants.  Dr. Song’s Tier II MTRAC award will enable him to transform two important crops and harvest the first line of seeds for further development and de-risking for commercialization.
  • Stevia is an emerging high-value crop grown for the non-caloric sugar substitute that can be extracted from the plant.  A current limitation of widespread adoption of stevia as a sugar substitute is its bitter aftertaste.  However, Dr. Ryan Warner has developed a series of stevia lines that produce higher concentrations of the industry-desired components of the sweetener that impart a more desirable taste profile.  Dr. Warner’s Tier II MTRAC award will allow him to take the first step toward commercialization of his technology.  Using his developed elite stevia lines, he will generate seed-propagated cultivars that will be evaluated and the most promising cultivars will be selected for further commercial development.
  • Dr. John Wise has developed an alternative method of delivery of pesticides for apple orchards and other specialty crops.  The trunk plug injection method developed by Dr. Wise proposes to save farmers the expense of multiple pesticide sprays per season, while eliminating product wastes and environmental risks associated with traditional ground sprayers.  With his Tier II MTRAC award, Dr. Wise will run field trials to obtain data and determine optimal injection timing necessary for the commercialization of his technology.

Learn more about the MSU MTRAC Program at http://www.technologies.msu.edu/researchers/msu-mtrac-agbio.