2017 MTRAC Full Funding Awards

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The Michigan Translational Research and Commercialization Program(MTRAC) Innovation Hub for AgBio at Michigan State University selected six awardees for Tier I Full Award funding, 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.

Recently, large breweries have become interested in finding a way to maximize the return on the tons of grain consumed in the brewing process.  Dr. Ven Balan proposes to utilize ammonia treatment and extraction processes to upgrade these brewer spent grains into high-protein animal feed.  He received partial funding to work with an industrial partner to scale up these processes, with the goal of developing a higher-value product and reducing waste from breweries, while improving feed for cattle, swine, and poultry.  If the results of the initial tests and techno-economic analysis of the scale-up are positive, the industrial partner will continue to work with and sponsor some further testing for the project and the remainder of the Tier I MTRAC award will be funded.

In 2016, Dr. Federica Brandizzi was awarded Tier I MTRAC Full Funding to transfer her CGR technology from a model plant species into soybean and alfalfa, two crops of significant value.  The CGR technology aims to address food security issues by producing an overexpression of a single gene.  This overexpression has been shown to cause an increase in photosynthesis, biomass and digestibility in model plant species.  Dr. Brandizzi has recently received another Tier I MTRAC award in 2017 to continue the commercial development of her CGR technology.  In the next phase of her project, she will continue transformations of soybean and alfalfa, which she proposes will have increased yield and nutritional value, respectively.  The work that Dr. Brandizzi is able to complete through the MTRAC AgBio program will allow for further development and de-risking of the engineered crops to the point that large seed companies would be willing to take the technology to market.

Potato producers across the country rely on irrigation to produce consistent crops and prevent yield and quality loss.  Current irrigation methods are very primitive, accounting for the third highest cost of potato production and no drought-tolerant potato varieties exist to reduce irrigation costs.  Internationally, the development of a drought-tolerant staple crop, such as potato, would increase food security as well.  MSU’s own potato expert, Dr. David Douches, received a Tier I MTRAC award to implement Dr. Kyung-Hwan Han’s, a former MTRAC awardee, XERICO Drought Resistance technology in a commercially important potato.  Initial studies done by Dr. Douches have shown the potential of the project to develop a potato variety that requires less water for irrigation and protects against drought conditions.  With his 2017 Tier I MTRAC award, his team will conduct greenhouse studies of Drought Inducible XERICO Potato and select the best lines for further testing.  The data collected will be used to support license negotiations with a commercial producer interested in drought tolerant potato.

A unique line of Silver Maple has been identified by Dr. Daniel Keathley to be denser and faster growing than typical Silver Maple trees.  Additionally, these Elite Silver Maple trees have more height growth, produce more stems, and have a higher wood density than NM6 poplar, the current industry standard for short rotation woody crop production.  With his MTRAC award, Dr. Keathley will further develop this technology and select the most promising Elite Silver Maple lines in his lab, with the ultimate goal of developing the trees to be coppiced as a uniform feedstock that can be used for wood pellets, particle board, pulp and paper manufacturing, oriented strand board, and electric power generation.  An added benefit of this technology is the development does not rely on gene modification; therefore, GMO regulatory barriers are not anticipated as Dr. Keathley works with the MTRAC AgBio program to progress the Elite Silver Maple toward commercialization.

Dr. Chris Saffron received 2017 Tier I Full Funding to continue the scale-up and development of his bio-oil upgrading technology.  Even when petroleum prices are low, making advanced materials from it is often an expensive, complicated, and dangerous process.  The plant-based synthesis methods proposed by Dr. Saffron offer a simpler route to high-value products, resulting in lower processing costs, intermediates with lower toxicity and flammability, and the ability to co-produce fuel precursors with high energy content.  The 2016 Tier I MTRAC awarded to Dr. Saffron enabled him to develop processes to convert renewable plant bio-oil into commercially viable products.  With the continued MTRAC AgBio funding, Dr. Saffron will scale up these processes to make renewable chemicals and fuels, and will perform a techno-economic analysis to show the process can be economically feasible at an industrial scale.

Dr. Herek Clack, of the University of Michigan, is building and test a demonstration non-thermal plasma air stream disinfection device.  Dr. Clack proposes his technology will reduce the risk of airborne disease outbreak on livestock farms by disinfecting ventilated air using Non-Thermal Plasma (NTP).  Unlike the HEPA filters currently used to filter air in swine and poultry barns, NTPs do not require expensive replacement filters or airtight structures, making installation of the units simple and less costly over time.  Losses from porcine reproductive and respiratory syndrome (PRRS) alone cost the U.S. pork industry more than $1 billion per year.