New Startups Built From UC Davis Innovations Drive Solutions in Food, Health and Agriculture

During the 2021-22 fiscal year, 13 startup companies executed agreements to access foundational intellectual property and commercialize new technologies developed at the University of California, Davis.

“The bold pursuit of novel solutions through research at UC Davis often results in new technologies and services aligned with a commercial pathway for impact,” said Prasant Mohapatra, vice chancellor for research at UC Davis. “In most cases those innovations are licensed to existing companies, but many also become the foundation for emerging startups. We are thrilled to see the success of this pathway continue at UC Davis.”

The process for connecting innovations from the university to commercial impact is managed by the Innovation and Technology Commercialization division, which is part of the Office of Research. During the 2021-2022 fiscal year, the division processed 132 new records of invention and executed 48 license agreements.

The division’s Venture Catalyst unit focuses on advancing potential technologies with proof-of-concept funding and facilitating startup formation.

The University of California system of campuses ranks first in the world for the number of U.S. utility patents according to a recent report from the National Academy of Inventors and the Intellectual Property Owners Association.

“Venture Catalyst, which was launched in 2013, provides resources to help campus innovators advance technologies and launch new companies,” said Janine Elliott, interim director Venture Catalyst. “It is exciting to see the results of these efforts and the broad range of solutions being advanced.”

Meeting needs in food, health and ag

In the last 10 years Venture Catalyst assisted 130 startups with foundational intellectual property. The 13 emerging startups over the past year are focused on developing technology to meet needs in food, health and agriculture.

One of the startups, Eunicera is developing novel therapeutics to treat and cure advanced drug-resistant prostate cancer. Co-founded by Allen Gao, a professor in the Department of Urology, the company’s proprietary, orally bioavailable small molecules targeting both AKR1C3 and androgen receptor variants either work alone or in combination with current therapies to overcome and prevent treatment resistance.

Another company, Optimized Foods is propelled by innovations in the food technology and cultivated meat sectors. By using a novel approach in mycelium technology, the team is creating nutritious, sustainable foods, starting with cultured caviar. Minami Ogawa, a graduate student in the Department of Food Science, discovered how the innovation could be harnessed as an ideal proprietary scaffold for cell cultivation. In parallel, Ruihong Zhang, a professor in the Department of Biological and Agricultural Engineering, and her lab had been developing foundational elements of the platform for food applications. The company’s platform is focused on making the dream of cultivated meat a reality, and improving human, animal and planetary health.

Peak B is commercializing natural alternatives to synthetic food colorants with superior color qualities, stability and potency. The UC Davis-led startup has discovered a cyan blue color, solving one of the biggest challenges in the food industry’s search to source natural food colorants. The researchers examined anthocyanin, a water-soluble pigment that’s found in many familiar fruits and vegetables, giving them their vibrant red, purple, pink and blue hues. A specific anthocyanin was discovered in red cabbage that displayed the desired blue properties. Since the amount of anthocyanin is small in red cabbage, they used an enzyme-based process to turn its other anthocyanins into blue. Co-founded by Justin Siegel, an associate professor in  chemistry, biochemistry and molecular medicine, the company’s patented enzyme-based process now turns extracts from natural sources into blue and green colorants that can be used in a variety of food applications.

Additional companies that executed agreements to access the foundational intellectual property from UC Davis during the 2021-22 fiscal year are highlighted below. Three companies have chosen to remain in “stealth mode” for competitive reasons and are not listed.

  • AIVision aims to reduce toxic chemical use and food loss through early insect detection. The company is co-founded by Zhongli Pan, an adjunct professor in the Department of Biological and Agricultural Engineering.
  • Artisyn Laboratories is developing sustainable wellness products for the commercial market. The company is co-founded by Mark Mascal, a professor in the Department of Chemistry.
  • Hope Medical is focused on developing a medical device that helps patients with difficulties swallowing. The company is co-founded by Peter Belafsky, a professor in the Department of Otolaryngology.
  • Kobin is developing precision agriculture utilizing aerial data analytics. The company is co-founded by Alireza Pourreza, an assistant professor in the Department of Biological and Agricultural Engineering.
  • Mirnova Therapeutics is developing small molecules and microRNA drugs for the treatment of traumatic brain injury and other neurological disorders. The company is co-founded by Da Zhi Liu, an adjunct professor in the Department of Neurology.
  • Prism Bio is pioneering the use of biotechnology to produce natural protein-pigment based colors based on natural light-sensing pigment systems from plants and algae to deliver all colors in the visible spectrum. These sustainable natural colors can be used in food, industrial and personal care products, and health applications. Their technology will have a significant impact on reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Co-founders include John Clark Lagarias, a distinguished professor emeritus in the College of Biological Sciences, and Justin Siegel, an associate professor in the Department of Chemistry.
  • VGN Bio Inc. is developing unique cancer drug candidates from viral protein sequences that have evolved over millions of years of co-evolution. The company is co-founded by Yoshihiro Izumiya, an assistant professor in the Department of Dermatology.

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AB 2664 Innovation Funds Show Early Signs of Impact at UC Davis

AB 2664 Innovation Funds Show Early Signs of Impact at UC Davis

A $2.2 million investment from the state is propelling new innovation and entrepreneurship efforts at the University of California, Davis through enhancements to its related infrastructure, resources and business training programs. The one-time funding was received in early 2017 under Assembly Bill 2664 — the UC Innovation and Entrepreneurship Expansion Bill authored by Assembly member Jacqui Irwin, D-Thousand Oaks — and is showing signs of early impact in terms of new technologies, startup companies and talent development.

“By expanding our innovation and entrepreneurship infrastructure and supporting programs, UC Davis is seizing the opportunity to effectively translate its close to $800 million of annual research funding into regional and statewide economic growth,” said Dushyant Pathak, associate vice chancellor for research. “Although we are less than a year into the funding, we are already noticing an impact through our programs.”

UC Davis is using the funds to launch new programs and expand existing ones that provide entrepreneurs and innovators the resources and guidance needed to overcome barriers to successful innovation and early-stage technology commercialization. The programs represent a coordinated effort amongst several campus entities including the Office of Research, Institute for Innovation and Entrepreneurship, Engineering Student Startup Center, Office of the Provost, Office of Graduate Studies, and Internship and Career Center.

A summary report sent to state officials by the University of California Office of the President contained some examples of the range of activities and related impact supported by AB 2664 funds across the system. At UC Davis, use of these funds is demonstrating a positive impact through programs that have advanced 15 technologies through proof-of-concept grant programs, assisted 34 startup companies and provided training and development to nearly 500 entrepreneurs.

Some of the notable new and expanded programs providing support include:

  • Food and Ag Entrepreneurship Academy: Expanded business training workshop and mentorship series developed and implemented by the Institute for Innovation and Entrepreneurship, focused on commercializing technologies at the intersection of food, agriculture and health.
  • Advanced Student Career Enablement and Development (ASCEND) Program: New cross-campus collaboration, involving Graduate Studies, the Internship and Career Center, the Institute for Innovation and Entrepreneurship and the Office of Research, with initial implementation through the Leaders for the Future pilot program focused on helping PhD candidates and postdoctoral scholars connect with non-academic career opportunities through industry engagement and business training.
  • Proof-of-Concept Grants developed and managed by Venture Catalyst in the Office of Research: Expansion of the Science Translation & Innovative Research (STAIRTM) Grants to include opportunities for graduate students to participate on project teams, development of commercialization clinics to facilitate market focus and the STAIR-Plus™ Grant that provides additional support to STAIR Grant recipients who have successfully achieved project milestones and are poised for commercial impact pending specific additional targeted results. Also launched was the new Data, Informatics & Application Launch (DIALTM) Grants, which provide targeted funding for software and data informatics projects with commercial potential.
  • Creator Challenge Series: New undergraduate student maker competition organized by the Engineering Student Startup Center in the College of Engineering, as a four-phase event with supplemental skill-building workshops for student entrepreneurs, culminated in an event where teams presented in a competition for proof-of-concept funding.
  • Distributed Research Incubation & Venture Engine (DRIVETM) Network: Expanded research and development capabilities within the Venture Catalyst DRIVE Network comprising business incubation facilities available to university-affiliated startups and community-based entrepreneurs, by placing 10 pieces of technical equipment that enhance targeted areas for developing companies. The newly available equipment has helped to catalyze a new partnership with The Urban Hive and I/O Labs, an expanded partnership with HM.CLAUSE, and the move to a new facility for Inventopia, all of which significantly expands the capabilities of campus innovators, university-affiliated startups and local companies.
  • Discounted Access to Research Translation Services (DARTSTM) Program: New program that provides startups participating in Venture Catalyst’s Smart Toolkit for Accelerated Research Translation (START™) program access to state-of-the-art services and equipment at designated UC Davis core research facilities at competitive rates designed to address the capital constraints of startups. A complementary program was also launched for participants in the DRIVE network with access to credits to be used at DARTS core facilities.

A good example of the how these programs are helping campus entrepreneurs develop solutions that address societal needs is the progress of Tony Simon, professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences and co-founder of Cognivive, who is developing video games that act as “digital medicines” with the initial objective of treating children with cognitive impairments. Simon, one of three recipients of the STAIR-Plus Grants, was awarded $20,000 in funding to further advance his technology beyond early proof-of-concept stage.

“AB 2664 funds have been instrumental in helping us advance our digital treatment prototypes towards efficacy and commercialization by helping us move the early, desktop computer versions of our neurotherapeutic video games to a virtual reality delivery platform that allows us to much more directly impact the neurocognitive systems whose functioning we aim to improve.” Simon said. “On top of that development work, the ongoing commercialization clinics and business training workshops we are participating in, are ensuring that we don’t just develop really effective treatments but that we also are best prepared to actually get them to those people who really need them.”

Another example of the direct impact of these programs is the work of an undergraduate team of students that received the first place prize in the Creator Challenge Series. The team, named JAPA, short for Just a Parking App, developed a solution that provides real‐time parking spot availability and navigation to drivers via an app. “With the prize money, the team and I were able to push our product further by ordering the necessary components that we would not have normally had the money to buy,” said Mathew Magno of JAPA. “Since then, we have been testing and developing two types of sensors for JAPA and we have progressed tremendously.”

Plans to utilize the funding run through 2019, with the majority to be disbursed through the 2018 fiscal year. Some of the new programs that will be implemented include the Little Bang! student oriented micro-grant poster competition that is launching in conjunction with the Big Bang! Business Competition, the Central Valley Entrepreneurship Academy that is launching in partnership with UC Merced in the fall and the Aggie Innovation and Startup Symposium which will include workshops with content addressing the experiences of underrepresented populations and include speakers from the region who can serve as role models and mentors.

For more information on how funds from AB 2664 are being used at UC Davis or opportunities to participate in the related programs, please contact [email protected].