Specialty crop researchers at Michigan State University and representatives from the MSU Innovation Center are gearing up for the Great Lakes EXPO in Grand Rapids next month, where the latest AgBio technological innovations will be on display. These research products and discoveries largely result from the economic benefits of technology transfer, a process that offers tremendous dividends to corporate partners, faculty inventors, and the general public when investments in cutting-edge technology are successfully developed and translated from the lab to the marketplace.
The Great Lakes Fruit, Vegetable, and Farm Market Expo and Michigan Greenhouse Growers Expo, held at DeVos Place from Dec. 5-7, is the largest annual agricultural trade show and educational event in the Great Lakes region. About 5,000 specialty crop growers, owner-operators, corporate representatives and researchers are expected to attend, enjoying more than 70 educational sessions and workshops to pick from, as well as the opportunity to share ideas and concerns.
MSU Innovations Actively Helping Growers
As a leading agricultural research institution, MSU has a wealth of knowledge and resources to support agriculture and AgTech innovation. The MSU Innovation Center is the epicenter for growers, companies, and innovators to connect with MSU’s extensive capacities. One branch of the Innovation Center is the technology transfer and commercialization team, known as MSU Technologies, which facilitates the public use of technologies and copyrightable materials developed by MSU faculty and staff. According to Tom Herlache, Ph.D., J.D. Technology Manager and Assistant Director for Commercialization, potential business partners sometimes have misconceptions about the technology transfer process.
“Sometimes we’ll hear that universities are slow, or uninterested, or difficult, or that we ask for outrageous sums of money,” said Herlache, who works with faculty and researchers in agriculture, natural resources, and natural science to protect intellectual property and engage in commercial partnerships. “None of those things are true. Our goal is to see our technology get out into the marketplace where it can benefit people. If we happen to make some money on that, that’s great. We charge market reasonable rates, and we’ll do what we have to do to get that deal done.”
The technology transfer process benefits existing businesses and startup companies primarily by connecting them with new technologies, new inventions, or new ideas.
“The university gets a lot of funding from different sources, including the federal government, and we have an obligation to assist in the translation of technologies and copyrightable materials developed by MSU faculty into products and services that the public can use,” said Julia Miller, Ph.D., AgBio Technology Manager with MSU Technologies. “We help facilitate that transfer by looking for companies to partner with us to help translate and develop new technologies that were developed in a lab or in the field into products and services that can improve lives and communities.
“With some of the nation’s premier researchers in agronomy and plant sciences, partnering with the MSU Innovation Center allows companies to have a better understanding of all of the research that’s happening across the university,” Miller added. “This, in turn, gives them the ability to further collaborate with a community of researchers across different disciplines to solve complicated and pressing problems.”
From moonshots to market-readiness
Most of the novel technologies developed at the university are very cutting edge; however, they might not be very developed, which is why companies usually have to further advance the technology before it is market-ready.
“We’re funded to do fundamental, basic research that leads to the development of new knowledge,” Herlache said. “So, universities are taking a lot more risk in their research than a company ever would. When we get something, it’s typically not close to a product. It’s not totally designed around a known customer need that is currently just out of reach. We are taking moonshots when we’re doing research.”
A new technology will typically undergo an evolution of sorts, developing slowly over time as various researchers and companies help shape it on its journey to market readiness. For example, Application Insight, LLC is a Michigan consulting company that provides pesticide application solutions, measuring instruments, and custom training. Application Insight has been helping MSU researchers for many years with agricultural engineering support, but it has been especially involved in providing hardware innovations to a project designed to get tractors and towed sprayers out of the pesticide spraying business, a paradigm shift that would offer great benefits, especially to fruit growers who could improve the quality of their crops and increase density per acre.
“A lot of times you need to apply a spray, but you can’t drive the orchards,” said Mark Ledebuhr, Application Insight’s principal consultant. “It’s too wet or you’re really close to harvest, it’s too windy, etc., and spraying is useless if it’s not timed perfectly. A poor spray timed well beats an excellent spray timed poorly. So, if you have an orchard plumbed full of nozzles ready to spray without having to drive the orchard, there’s huge advantages to that.
“As a small company, we don’t intend to become the final licensee for these technologies, though we have an agreement for a share of any future royalties,” he continued. “We can take some of these very rough technologies and get them closer, ideally, to something that MSU could license to another manufacturer, most likely in this case a large global company.”
Technology transfer a driver of Michigan’s AgBio economy
The technology transfer process benefits faculty inventors too. While partnering with a company obviously provides them with a great opportunity for their research to be developed into a product or service, many faculty members often don’t have the time or expertise to continue developing the technology because they may be focused on different research projects, writing papers or educating students.
“They’re able to hand it off to the technology transfer office and we get the proper agreements in place so an established company or a startup can develop the technology into a product or service,” said Miller. “If faculty inventors are interested in the commercialization process, they can be involved and learn about it too. And under MSU’s policies, a portion of the proceeds that come from the commercialization of the technology comes back to the researchers themselves, as well as back to the university, where it’s reinvested in support of ongoing research and education.”
Faculty inventors also become known as technological innovators, so it boosts their reputation as researchers who are completing cutting-edge work. Inventors who work with the technology transfer office can learn about the process of developing their basic research into commercialized products and services, which supports further inventions and potential partnerships with companies to solve problems that businesses are trying to address.
As a land grant institution, MSU also helps flow research investment, much of it funded by taxpayers, to economic development through the creation of new technologies and the licensing of those technologies to companies that improve them and sell them as goods or services to the public, ultimately solving problems and creating jobs.
Thus, technology transfer benefits Michigan’s economy by helping to translate fundamental research into applications that can benefit American manufacturing, in particular. Furthermore, unless they are granted an exception, businesses that use MSU-patented technology for products sold in the U.S. are required to manufacture those products in the U.S.
According to the MSU Innovation Center’s 2022 Annual report, research at the university last year resulted in 157 invention disclosures, 52 U.S. patents, 29 executed license/option agreements, two startup companies, more than $25 million in corporate support for MSU projects, and more than $4 million in royalties received.
“I think MSU is doing great work recognizing that there needs to be a strong support infrastructure for entrepreneurs,” said Ledebuhr. “There’s an awful lot that even the smartest professors and students just don’t know when it comes to taking technology and making a business out of it. So, I applaud MSU for creating that infrastructure. I think it’s amazing.”
Register today for this year’s Great Lakes Expo in Grand Rapids, MI on December 5-7, 2023. Click HERE to register.
Click HERE to learn more about the MTRAC Ag Bio-Supported technologies from MSU that will be at this year’s Great Lakes Expo.
About the MSU Innovation Center:
The MSU Innovation Center is dedicated to fostering innovation, research commercialization, and entrepreneurial activities from the research and discovery happening across our campus every day. We act as the primary interface for researchers aiming to see their research applied to solving real-world problems and making the world a better place to live. We aim to empower faculty, researchers, and students within our community of scholars by providing them with the knowledge, skills, and opportunities to bring their discoveries to the forefront. Through strategic collaborations with the private sector, we aim to amplify the impact of faculty research and drive economic growth while positively impacting society. We foster mutually beneficial, long-term relationships with the private sector through corporate-sponsored research collaborations, technology licensing discussions, and support for faculty entrepreneurs to support the establishment of startup companies.