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COVID-19 Related Resources for Startups (March 23, 2020)

Four business professionals in a meeting

We recognize that many startups are struggling to adapt to the evolving situation with COVID-19. To provide a starting point for innovators and entrepreneurs, we have assembled a few links to resources that may be helpful as you navigate operating a startup during these unprecedented times. The Venture Catalyst team is working remotely, but remains available to assist START program participants, so please do not hesitate to contact us at venturecatalyst@ucdavis.edu.

For those startups with a current SBIR/STTR grant or contract or were anticipating responding to an open solicitation, we encourage you to check the agency web site for updates and reach out to the program officer for guidance.

Startup Uses Advanced Imaging Technology and Machine Learning to Sort Seeds and Insects

UC Davis startup Spectral Analytix applies machine vision, robotics and machine learning to automatically classify or sort seeds and insects.

UC Davis startup Spectral Analytix applies machine vision, robotics and machine learning to automatically classify or sort seeds and insects. (Hector Amezcua/UC Davis)

Original Post: research.ucdavis.edu/startup-uses-advanced-imaging-technology-and-machine-learning-to-sort-seeds-and-insects/

Christian Nansen, an associate professor in the UC Davis Department of Entomology and Nematology, has launched a startup, Spectral Analytix, to apply machine vision and machine learning to the classification and sorting of seeds and insects.

“The idea is to combine machine vision, robotics and machine learning so you have an automatic eye, an automated arm and an automated brain,” said Nansen. “If you automate those three components you end up with a system that can automatically classify or sort whatever you are working with.”

For the machine “vision,” Nansen works with hyperspectral cameras, which collect data at very high spectral resolution. “The camera on your phone divides light into three wavelengths—red, blue and green,” said Nansen. “You can think of it like a cake with three layers—for each pixel you have three values. With a hyperspectral camera you have 250 bands, so the ‘cake’ now has 250 layers.”

Hyperspectral imaging is used for a wide variety of applications, from mining to surveillance to investigating works of art. Paired with machine learning, hyperspectral imaging is widely used in food processing and recycling industries for sorting.

Several aspects of crop breeding and commercialization of crop seeds involve inspection and quality control.

“Often, these inspection and control measures are time consuming and rely on highly trained technicians. They may also be associated with consistency challenges due to human error. So, replacing them with automated procedures can improve such inspection and control measures and also enable people to focus on other tasks that involve higher levels of complexity,” said Nansen.

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14 New Startups Emerge From UC Davis Innovations

4 New Startups Emerge From UC Davis Innovations

Technologies developed at the University of California, Davis, enabled the foundation of 14 startup companies during the fiscal year ending June 30, 2019.

“Research universities like UC Davis are a key source of vital innovation for numerous industries,” said Prasant Mohapatra, vice chancellor for research at UC Davis. “These startups are undertaking the important first steps in developing and refining the commercial potential of their inventions. It’s exciting to see such a wide range of entrepreneurial undertakings based on our campus innovations.”

Several of the startups are focused on technology solutions addressing important societal needs, including data management for the agriculture industry, software for fraud prevention, and distributed and immutable ledger technology for vital records such as birth certificates.

Many are developing potential solutions to address serious health challenges.

Delix Therapeutics, founded by David Olson, an assistant professor in the Department of Chemistry and the Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Medicine, is an example of such a company. It is investigating whether neural plasticity-promoting drugs could lead to new treatments for depression, anxiety and related disorders without the unwanted hallucinogenic effects of such molecules.

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Neurologic Disease Research at UC Davis Contributes to First Treatment Specifically Approved for Postpartum Depression

Michael Rogawski conducted lab and clinical research on the neuro-steroid

Dorota Zolkowska and Michael Rogawski. Michael Rogawski, a professor in the UC Davis Department of Neurology, and Dorota Zolkowska, a project scientist in Rogawski’s research laboratory, conducted studies resulting in inventions related to allopregnanolone as a potential treatment for neurological diseases.

Dorota Zolkowska and Michael Rogawski. Michael Rogawski, a professor in the UC Davis Department of Neurology, and Dorota Zolkowska, a project scientist in Rogawski’s research laboratory, conducted studies resulting in inventions related to allopregnanolone as a potential treatment for neurological diseases. (Rudy Meyers Photography)

Original post: research.ucdavis.edu/ucdavis_sage_therapeutics

(SACRAMENTO) — Sage Therapeutics announced March 19 the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s approval of its product, Zulresso™ (brexanolone) injection, for the treatment of postpartum depression in women. Initial development of an intravenous formulation of allopregnanolone (also known as brexanolone) and first-in-human clinical studies were conducted by Michael Rogawski, a professor in the UC Davis Departments of Neurology and Pharmacology. Rogawski is former chair of the Department of Neurology.

In laboratory-based and clinical research, Rogawski and his colleagues investigated the neuroactive steroid allopregnanolone as a potential therapeutic agent for neurological diseases. The University of California granted rights to Sage Therapeutics, including licenses to certain patent rights, for the commercial use of allopregnanolone.

This is the first drug approved by the FDA specifically for postpartum depression. Postpartum depression is the most common medical complication of childbirth and affects approximately one in nine women who have given birth in the U.S.

“It’s very exciting to see the development of this treatment reach such a significant milestone, offering new hope to those affected by postpartum depression,” said Prasant Mohapatra, vice chancellor for research at UC Davis. “This is a wonderful example illustrating the role UC Davis research plays in helping to address needs around world.”

Neuro-steroid a good candidate for post-partum depression treatment

Allopregnanolone is a naturally occurring neuroactive steroid derived from the female sex hormone progesterone. Rogawski became interested in allopregnanolone as a potential treatment for postpartum depression because studies with neuroactive steroids conducted in his and other laboratories showed antidepressant potential.

“Blood levels of progesterone, and therefore allopregnanolone, rise dramatically as pregnancy progresses, but begin to decrease in late pregnancy and then fall precipitously during the day or two after giving birth,” said Rogawski. “I reasoned that allopregnanolone levels might also fall and I hypothesized that the withdrawal of this endogenous antidepressant substance could trigger depression for some women. This led to the discovery of allopregnanolone as a treatment for postpartum depression.”

“From my very first engagement with Sage Therapeutics several years ago, the commitment of the company’s principals to work with the university to enable the development and commercialization of this important discovery was evident,” said Dushyant Pathak, UC Davis associate vice chancellor for research and executive director of Venture Catalyst. “At the university, we reciprocated through creative and goal-oriented approaches to structuring patent, data and material transfer agreements to support Sage’s development of this much-needed treatment.”

In addition to licensed patent rights, Sage Therapeutics was granted a right of reference to the University of California’s Investigational New Drug (IND) application package related to the use of allopregnanolone, which facilitated Sage’s transition of allopregnanolone into the clinic. The university also made allopregnanolone drug substance available for Sage’s use in early clinical trials.

“Up until the development of brexanolone, there was no specific treatment for postpartum depression. I am extremely pleased that our research has led to a rapidly acting treatment for this all-too-common condition,” said Rogawski.

About postpartum depression

Postpartum depression is a distinct and readily identified major depressive disorder that may have devastating consequences for a woman and for her family, which may include significant functional impairment, depressed mood and/or loss of interest in her newborn, and associated symptoms of depression such as loss of appetite, difficulty sleeping, motor challenges, lack of concentration, loss of energy and poor self-esteem. In developed countries, suicide is the leading cause of maternal death following childbirth. Postpartum depression affects approximately one in nine women who have given birth in the U.S. and 400,000 women annually. More than half of these cases may go undiagnosed without proper screening.

Rogawski and UC Davis project scientist Dorota Zolkowska are the inventors of U.S. Patent No. 10,251,894 B2, issued to the Regents of the University of California on April 9, 2019, and claiming methods of treating post-partum depression.

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Record Number of UC Davis Startups for 2017–18

ara Ann Niendam, an associate professor in residence and the executive director of the UC Davis Early Psychosis Programs, and Laura Tully, an assistant professor of psychiatry, are the co-founders of Safari Health, a digital health technology company focused on evidence-based care for young people experiencing serious mental illness.

Tara Ann Niendam, an associate professor in residence and the executive director of the UC Davis Early Psychosis Programs, and Laura Tully, an assistant professor of psychiatry, are the co-founders of Safari Health, a digital health technology company focused on evidence-based care for young people experiencing serious mental illness. (Lisa Howard/UC Davis)

Original post: research.ucdavis.edu/record-number-of-uc-davis-startups-for-2017-18

The University of California, Davis, enabled the foundation of 16 commercial companies during the fiscal year ending June 30, an all-time high for the university. This brings the total number of startups made possible by UC Davis technologies during the past 10 years to 137.

“Our commitment to supporting innovative faculty, students and staff — with the coordinated suite of resources we offer through Venture Catalyst — is accelerating societal benefit and regional economic impact through a robust pipeline of university spinoffs,” said Dushyant Pathak, associate vice chancellor of research and executive director of UC Davis Venture Catalyst.

“Not only are we seeing an uptick in the number of exciting new technology ventures from the university, but we are also seeing the achievement of significant commercialization milestones by prior years’ startups,” Pathak said.

Many of the startups are targeting unmet needs in human health, with new tests, technology platforms and therapeutics for diagnosing, monitoring and treating a wide variety of conditions and diseases.

Four of the new companies have innovations focused on cancer. Others are developing therapeutics aimed at treating obesity, multiple sclerosis, Alzheimer’s disease and optic neuropathy.

Safari Health, co-founded by Laura Tully, an assistant professor of psychiatry, and Tara Ann Niendam, an associate professor in residence and the executive director of the UC Davis Early Psychosis Programs, is a digital health technology company focused on evidence-based care for young people experiencing serious mental illness. The company’s first product, Mobi, is an app-based technology for psychosis clinics to monitor how patients are faring in between caregiver visits.

“In a traditional mental health treatment setting, patients can often go weeks in between seeing a therapist or doctor,” said Tully. “A lot can happen in that time. Mobi closes that loop and allows the provider to monitor how things are going. If there is something predictive of a bad outcome, the provider is notified and can make a care decision.”

“We are using technology to get data in order to improve care,” said Niendam. “With this platform we can connect people to appropriate care and also improve the care that’s provided.”

Petr Janata, a professor in the Department of Psychology and a faculty member in the UC Davis Center for Mind and Brain, is developing a different type of software platform — one that lets people preserve and share memories and stories associated with specific music.

Read more…

HM.CLAUSE and UC Davis Venture Catalyst Extend Commitment to Support Early-stage Startups

Life Science Innovation Center

UC Davis Venture Catalyst and HM.CLAUSE have extended and enhanced their partnership on the UC Davis-HM.CLAUSE Life Science Innovation Center, a business incubator focused on advancing regional innovation in the life sciences.

The UC Davis-HM.CLAUSE Life Science Innovation Center is a 3,100 square-foot, off-campus facility located in Davis, California. The facility, which is owned and managed by HM.CLAUSE, a global leader in the production and sale of vegetable seeds, contains biochemistry, molecular biology and chemistry lab space, as well as 1,800 square feet of contiguous greenhouse growth facilities. Established in 2014, it is the only wet lab incubator facility of its kind in the Davis-Sacramento region, supporting life science startups ranging from agtech to human therapeutics. Startups are able to rent dedicated lab bench space in the facility ― which also includes access to shared lab equipment and instrumentation, office space, and meeting rooms ― for a period ranging between six months to two years.

The expanded partnership sets forth a commitment for a minimum of five additional years to support the facility and grow the associated resources available to early-stage startups and other innovative companies. To supplement the shared lab equipment and instrumentation available at the facility, Venture Catalyst has allocated funding received through the University of California Innovation and Entrepreneurship Expansion Bill (AB 2664) to make available additional technical equipment and specialized instrumentation for the benefit of startups leasing space in the incubator. HM.CLAUSE is also making improvements to the facility to expand shared office space and to provide access to additional lab bench space for tenants.

“The successful collaboration with UC Davis on the Life Science Innovation Center has provided us with a unique and beneficial opportunity to engage with innovative ideas being advanced by aspiring entrepreneurs and startup companies within our industry and beyond,” said Cecilia Chi-Ham, director of Innovation, Intellectual Property and R&D Strategy at HM.CLAUSE. “HM.CLAUSE is committed to supporting community-based, local and regional economic development and this is a visible and impactful example of our many efforts on this front.”

The UC Davis-HM.CLAUSE Life Science Innovation Center was the first member of the Venture Catalyst Distributed Research Innovation & Venture Engine (DRIVETM) Program, a network of business incubators on- and off-campus that provide university-affiliated startups access to affordable work space, laboratory space and equipment ― supplemented with support and resources provided by Venture Catalyst. As the region’s innovation ecosystem has matured, the DRIVE Program has grown to include eight members, extending the resources available to university-affiliated entrepreneurs and startups in the Davis-Sacramento region and beyond.

“We are thrilled to enhance our partnership with HM.CLAUSE, which offers wet lab incubator space that addresses the demand for specialized research and development facilities by many of the early-stage, university-affiliated startups we are supporting through Venture Catalyst and its programs,” said Dushyant Pathak, associate vice chancellor of Technology Management & Corporate Relations at UC Davis and executive director of Venture Catalyst. “This collaboration is a critical component in our efforts to cultivate robust technology startups and drive regional economic impact.”

In 2016, HM.CLAUSE received the inaugural UC Davis Chancellor’s Innovative Community Partner Award. This award recognizes a leader or organization in the UC Davis community that has contributed significantly to driving regional economic impact through innovation, entrepreneurship or support for growing a startup ecosystem in collaboration with the university.

Since its launch in 2015, ten early-stage startups have leased space in the incubator. One of the center’s first tenants, Circularis Biotechnologies, Inc., has made notable progress on business milestones while maintaining a presence in the incubator. Circularis has developed a novel method to regulate gene expression and enable increased production yields of proteins, enzymes and small molecules with applications across biotherapeutics manufacturing, industrial biotechnology, and large-scale agriculture. The company was founded by Paul Feldstein, assistant project scientist at UC Davis, to commercialize technology developed at the university. Circularis received funding and mentorship through its participation in IndieBio’s 2015 winter cohort and has since established partnerships with several companies utilizing the platform for industrial and medical applications. “Having access to the UC Davis-HM.CLAUSE Life Science Innovation Center has allowed my company to make significant strides in developing its technology in an environment that promotes collaboration and offers vital access to key pieces of technical equipment,” said Feldstein.

Another recent tenant, MiraculeX, arrived at the Life Science Innovation Center by way of IndieBio, where it participated in the 2016 spring cohort. MiraculeX has received funding to develop plant-based protein sweeteners, intended to be better tasting and healthier natural alternatives to artificial sweeteners for use in foods. Its ability to enhance flavor profiles of existing foods is expected to enable additional applications beyond sweetening, such as the potential to improve appetite in patients undergoing chemotherapy or suffering from chronic wasting conditions associated with reduced food intake. “The UC Davis-HM.CLAUSE Life Science Innovation Center and opportunities for engagement with faculty, staff, and students at UC Davis were critical factors in my decision to move MiraculeX to Davis,” said Alan Perlstein, CEO and founder. “Being able to work in a greenhouse facility and develop connections with the university and a strong network throughout Northern California has accelerated our progress on important company milestones.”

Current university-affiliated tenants at the UC Davis-HM.CLAUSE Life Science Innovation Center include:

  • ARIZ Precision Medicine – developing new, targeted biology based and small-molecule based therapies for cancer.
  • AstRoNA – combining RNA-based molecular biology and nano-technology/electrical engineering to rapidly and sensitively identify critical microbes, including pathogens of humans, animals and plants.
  • Buto Biopharma – developing drugs that impact the Shc target, with implications for anti-diabetes and tissue protection.
  • Circularis – developing novel methods to regulate gene expression and enable increased production yields of proteins, enzymes, and small molecules in cellular systems.
  • Inserogen – biotechnology company that utilizes proprietary technologies to accelerate Pre-Investigational New Drug research and process development of therapeutic biologics for rare diseases.
  • MiraculeX – developing platforms to mass produce natural plant-based protein sweeteners and products.
  • PathLog Corporation – developing deep learning analytical tools and sensors for processing, financial analysis and tracking, risk assessment, and pathogen safety for vertically integrated food and agricultural product producers including poultry and pork.

About Venture Catalyst

UC Davis Venture Catalyst facilitates the translation of university research and technology by enabling the effective development of new ventures. Along with directly supporting campus innovators and community-based entrepreneurs, Venture Catalyst engages with the Davis and Sacramento business, government and economic development communities to articulate how UC Davis technologies and startups can be expected to generate regional economic impact. Working closely with these partners, Venture Catalyst is invigorating the technology-based entrepreneurial ecosystem of the region.

About HM.CLAUSE

HM.CLAUSE is a global vegetable seed company dedicated to meeting local needs through global diversity, and is committed to innovation inspired by worldwide partnerships in the scientific, industrial, and commercial fields. An innovative company whose core business is plant breeding, HM.CLAUSE specializes in the development, production, and sales of vegetable seeds worldwide. In 2008, Harris Moran Seed Company (USA) and Clause (France) were grouped together under the HM.CLAUSE Business Unit of Limagrain. HM.CLAUSE generated €325 million in annual sales in 2016 and employs more than 2,800 people full-time located in over 30 countries around the world. Its investments in research and breeding represent 14% of annual sales. The organization coordinates breeding for 25 species and has more than 800 people actively engaged in research and development activities. HM.CLAUSE is a Business Unit of Limagrain, an international agricultural co-operative group, specializing in field seeds, vegetable seeds and cereal products. Founded and managed by French farmers, Limagrain is the 4th largest seed company in the world.

About AB-2664

Assembly Bill 2664, also referred to as the Innovation and Entrepreneurship Expansion bill, was authored by Assemblymember Jacqui Irwin, D-Thousand Oaks, and signed last fall by Governor Jerry Brown. AB 2664 is designed to propel new innovation and entrepreneurship efforts across the University of California through investments in infrastructure, incubators and entrepreneurship education programs. The $22 million investment was dispersed equally to each of the ten UC campuses at the beginning of 2017. Venture Catalyst is the program lead at UC Davis and is implementing a variety of innovation and entrepreneurship expansion activities in conjunction with partners on campus, including the Mike and Renee Child Institute for Innovation and Entrepreneurship, the Engineering Student Startup Center, the Office of the Provost, Graduate Studies and the Internship and Career Center, as well as external community partners, such as HM.CLAUSE.

September 20, 2017

By Ryan Sharp

Related Links

HM.CLAUSE receives UC Davis Chancellor Innovative Community Partner Award

UC Davis partners with HM.CLAUSE to open Life Science Innovation Center

UC Davis to enhance campus innovation with $2.2 million from State Innovation and Entrepreneurship Expansion Bill, AB 2664

Media Contact

AJ Cheline (530) 219-8739

14 new startups based on technologies developed at UC Davis tackle range of scientific, medical, and societal problems

14 new startups based on technologies developed at UC Davis tackle range of scientific, medical, and societal problems

The University of California, Davis, enabled the foundation of 14 commercial startups during the past fiscal year— matching the largest number of new ventures launched in a single year, based on UC Davis technologies.

MUSE Microscopy, one of the startups, is planning to revolutionize the way pathologists identify disease. The company’s technology, jointly developed with Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, has the potential to save pathologists time and money.

Examining patient tissue under a microscope is critical for research and diagnosing diseases, but preparing samples for slides is costly and time-consuming, taking hours to days. MUSE has developed an alternative: a method that uses short-wavelength ultraviolet light and fluorescent dyes to generate high-definition images of tissue features without the drawbacks of traditional slide preparation.

Logos4n, another startup based on research being conducted at UC Davis, has developed a method to identify individuals’ genomes with high precision, as well as measure genetic changes from development, stress and aging.

Founder and Chief Science Officer Dr. Kiho Cho sees a wide range of possible applications for the company’s genetic surveillance protocols and algorithms such as animal and plant breeding, cell and tissue typing, fundamental cell biology and genetics, and judicial forensics. He also notes several medical applications including genome toxicology (how people’s genomes respond to drugs and environmental toxins), monitoring of radiation therapy, and marker discovery to help diagnose and study diseases.

“Our genetics surveillance technologies have opened the pathway to new understandings of the dynamic genome landscape in biology in general and to individual diagnostics and treatments of some of the most challenging medical conditions in our society,” said Cho.

Several other companies are developing medical applications such as new therapies for high-mortality cancers, Sapience Therapeutics; new anti-inflammatories, AccenGen Therapeutics; a portable non-invasive screening tool for diagnosing traumatic brain injury, Vizzario; and a wearable device for managing vein disorders, VenoSense.

Beyond the biomedical space, UC Davis startups are also tackling important societal problems. Foodful.ly, for example, has created an app to reduce America’s massive food waste problem by alerting users when food is about to go bad and even providing a recipe to uses the item, rather than let it go to waste.

foodfully22

Foodful.ly app notifies user when food is about to expire

Innovation part of University of California culture

University of California campuses, including UC Davis, are powerhouses when it comes to innovation.

In July, the National Academy of Inventors and the Intellectual Property Owners Association ranked University of California number one in the world among universities based on granted U.S. patents. And according to a report by the Bay Area Council Economic Institute, UC researchers and entrepreneurs have spawned hundreds of new companies, contributing more than $20 billion to California’s economy.

This past year UC Davis innovators were issued 35 U.S. and 29 foreign patents. The university also executed 98 copyright licenses, processed 233 records of inventions, filed 200 U.S. and 22 foreign patents, and negotiated 51 licenses and 799 material transfer agreements.

In total, 51 startups, including the 14 new companies for fiscal year 2015-2016, have been formed at UC Davis during the past five years.

Campus entrepreneurs supported by UC Davis Venture Catalyst

Venture Catalyst, within the Technology Management & Corporate Relations division of the UC Davis Office of Research, provides a range of services and resources to help campus inventors and entrepreneurs turn their technologies into companies focused on developing products or services that benefit society.
Venture Catalyst guides researchers through the startup phase including company formation, establishing the appropriate corporate structure, creating connections to mentors and commercial service providers, and provides access to startup incubation facilities.

“This last year, we have seen Venture Catalyst and our collaborative partners support the creation and foundational development of a new cohort of exciting startups based on the novel and compelling research of our faculty, students and staff,” said Dushyant Pathak, associate vice chancellor of research, who also serves as the executive director of Venture Catalyst. “Our startups, with their focus on commercializing effective solutions for pressing societal needs, represent one of the ways in which UC Davis fulfils its mission to serve the greater good of California, the nation and the world.”

Venture Catalyst works closely with campus and local community resources, including its companion units, InnovationAccess and the Office of Corporate Relations, the university’s Child Family Institute for Innovation and Entrepreneurship and local and regional drivers of economic development to support the translation of university research into economic impact.

Venture Catalyst also provides grants to help campus entrepreneurs demonstrate commercial proof-of-concept and the feasibility of their market impact.

UC Davis Startups fiscal year 2015-2016

1. A-Chip. Microfluidic-based diagnostic tool for evaluating inflammatory cell activation and assessing a patient’s risk for a repeat heart attack.
2. AccenGen Therapeutics. Novel anti-inflammatories for indications with the highest unmet needs, such as sinusitis, pain, cardiovascular, respiratory indications and cancer.
3. Amaryllis Nucleics. More efficient RNA-sequencing library synthesis for diagnostics, pharmaceutical development and food security.
4. Biomass Liquefaction Technologies. Innovative process for energy-efficient high solids liquefaction of biomass.
5. Foodful.ly. App that integrates with grocery store purchases to alert users when food is about to go bad and even provides a recipe.
6. GlycoHub. Highly effective enzymatic approaches for high-yield and cost-effective production of complex glycans.
7. Izotropic Corporation. Breast computer tomography for early cancer detection and diagnosis.
8. LOGOS4n. High-resolution genetics, genome, DNA surveillance technologies, to be applied to precision diagnostics and prognostics.
9. MUSE Microscopy, Inc. Novel slide-free microscopy technology for research and diagnostic applications.
10. Protein Architects. Beta solenoid proteins as “molecular Legos” for applications in self-assembly of nanoparticle based devices and materials.
11. Sapience Therapeutics. Novel therapeutics for major unmet medical needs, particularly high-mortality cancers.
12. SensIT. Microelectromechanical-based chemical sensors and information systems.
13.VenoSense. Wearable sensing platform for management of chronic venous disorder.
14. Vizzario. A non-invasive portable screening methodology for diagnosing traumatic brain Injury.

More Information

Media contact:

AJ Cheline, UC Davis Office of Research, 530-752-1101, acheline@ucdavis.edu

Startups with roots at UC Davis evolve when innovations become businesses

zasaka-hdr

Instead of graduating and jumping straight into the workforce, some enterprising grads are forming companies with ideas and innovations they developed at UC Davis. John Bissell (’08) helped develop a method for creating more sustainable plastic as an undergraduate studying Chemical Engineering. Tom Shapland (’07, M.S. ’11, Ph.D. ’12) worked with a team to develop calibration technology for monitoring crop water usage while pursuing his Ph.D. in Horticultural Science. And Carl Jensen (M.S. ’14) started working on the problem of grain storage in Sub-Saharan Africa while obtaining his masters in International Agricultural Development. Each is enjoying the challenges of building a company from scratch but they’ve all had to be flexible as ideas met market realities.

An evolving method for turning waste into plastic

As an undergraduate in the Chemical Engineering program at UC Davis, John Bissell was convinced there had to be a better way to make plastic.

The majority of plastic in the world—from the reviled single-use shopping bag to your toothbrush—is derived from petroleum, a non-renewable resource. And a tremendous amount of petroleum goes into plastic: In the U.S. alone, 191 million barrels of hydrocarbon gas liquids (byproducts of petroleum refining) or about 2.7% of total U.S. petroleum consumption was used to make plastic in in 2010, when the U.S. Department of Energy last reported this data.

Instead of using petroleum, Bissell, along with fellow students Ryan Smith and Casey McGrath, found a way to make the base components of plastic using modified bacteria to digest a variety of waste products like sewage and agricultural waste. The concept was promising enough that the partners took out a patent for the bacteria and secured seed funding in 2008 to create Micromidas, Inc.

Micromidas

John Bissell, CEO of Micromidas, along with fellow UC Davis students Ryan Smith and Casey McGrath, found a way to make the base components of plastic from a variety of waste products including cardboard, rice hulls, and wheat straw. Bissell won the Cal Aggie Alumni Association’s Young Alumni Award in 2013.

One challenge with the bacterial process was it was not completely efficient. Bissell explains, “We had some indigestible things we couldn’t convert.” So in 2010 they looked for a solution that could augment the bacterial process and ended up finding an attractive way to convert the waste using a chemical process developed by Mark Mascal, a professor in the UC Davis Chemistry Department. The new process uses organic chemistry to convert biomass into monomers—the substituents of plastics. After weighing the benefits of both methods, Micromidas decided to shelve the original process using bacteria. Bissell says, “We could only pick one project at a time.”

Micromidas

When the small biorefinery in West Sacramento is going full-speed it can process about 200 pounds an hour of woody waste like cardboard, agricultural waste, wood chips, rice hulls, wheat straw, rice straw, bagasse and empty fruit bunches from palm oil processing.

By 2014, Micromidas had raised $25 million in venture capital to build a pilot-scale plant in West Sacramento, which currently employs about 25 full-time staff and 15 to 20 technical experts who consult part-time.

When the small biorefinery in West Sacramento is going full-speed it can process about 200 pounds an hour of woody waste like cardboard, agricultural waste, wood chips, rice hulls, wheat straw, rice straw, bagasse and empty fruit bunches from palm oil processing.

The next step for Micromidas is a larger refinery. Bissell explains, “We are providing access to a new class of material. I’d like to see the technology become an integral part of the existing chemical industry.”

Water conservation tool becomes increasingly more sophisticated

When Tom Shapland was pursing his master’s and Ph.D. in the College of Agriculture and Environmental Science there was technology—Surface Renewal—that could calculate water usage in fields but the calibration process required extremely expensive instrumentation, making precise measurements too expensive to be practical outside of academia.

“Irrigation is the single most important lever for influencing the outcome of the crop and for attaining the crop goal,” Shapland explained. So being able to accurately measure water could give California farmers an important tool to manage their water use efficiently.

Tule

Tom Shapland, CEO of Tule, developed the technology while pursuing his Ph.D. in the College of Agriculture and Environmental Science.

Shapland tackled the challenge of making the technology affordable, working with his dissertation committee, which included Kyaw Tha Paw U, Rick Snyder and Andrew McElrone. Eventually, they came up with a solution for reducing the cost of the technology that forms the basis of Tule Technologies and in 2014, UC Davis’ Venture Catalyst helped the fledging company get started.

The Tule system uses sensors and a monitoring system above the crop canopy to tell growers precisely how much water their plants are using. Farmers access the data through a web dashboard or iPhone app. But as Tule Technologies developed growers wanted to fine-tune the irrigation, sometimes maximizing quantity, requiring more water, or maximizinge quality, which required putting the plants under a degree of water stress.

Tule

Tule Technologies is working with close to 300 California growers, mostly for wine grapes and almonds, with about 1,200 sensors in the fields. Farmers can access data through a web dashboard or iPhone app and can make irrigation decisions accordingly.

Tule Technologies is working with close to 300 California growers, mostly for wine grapes and almonds, with about 1,200 sensors in the fields. Farmers can access data through a web dashboard or iPhone app and can make irrigation decisions accordingly.

So Tule added features to the system to help growers reach their targeted stress levels. If the plants became too stressed—or not stressed enough—the technology alerts farmers, who can then make irrigation decisions accordingly.

Tule is growing and now has six employees and is looking for programmers interested in water conservation. It is working with close to 300 California growers, mostly for wine grapes and almonds, with about 1,200 sensors in the fields.

For Shapland the most rewarding aspect is utilizing and developing the technology, helping customers achieve their goals and conserve water and time. “I really love working with growers. Agriculture is complex. I learn a lot from them.”

Thinking outside the bag to help smallholder farmers in Africa

In Zambia, where farming is the country’s main livelihood, crop storage is a problem. Lacking adequate grain silos for staples like maize, a significant portion of each harvest is lost to vermin, insects, or molds that can create poisonous aflatoxins.

Carl Jensen became interested in working with smallholder farmers in Zambia—small farms usually supported by a single family growing a mixture of cash crops and subsistence farming— when he was part of an international team that studied the problem of storage. After graduating from UC Davis in 2014 he returned to Zambia to co-found Zasaka with Sunday Silungwe, whom he had met during a trip to Africa.

Zasaka

Zasaka co-founders (in blue t-shirts) Carl Jensen, left, and Sunday Silungwe, right, with a group of Private Extension Agents (PEAs). Jensen and Silungwe met in 2013 at the International Development Design Summit in Zambia. Silungwe, holds a degree in developmental studies from Zambia Catholic University and has worked in community development for many years.

Zasaka means “it’s in the bag” in the Zambian dialect of Nyanja, and selling bags—specifically the Purdue Improved Crop Storage (PICS) bag—made up a portion of the business plan to sell agricultural products and services to farmers. PICS bags are made of three layers of specialized plastic and can store more than 200 pounds of grain for up to a year. The idea was promising enough that Zasaka won both the People’s Choice award and the Ag and Food Innovation prize in the 2014 UC Davis Big Bang! Business Competition.

During the first year, Zasaka sold about 2,000 bags to farmers in Zambia at $2.50 each. But the price for the bags increased as the Zambian Kwacha became weaker against the U.S. dollar, creating a dilemma for the new enterprise.

“We kept trying to make it work, but we had to decide if we were a business or if we were going to subsidize the farmers,” said Jensen. Unable to cover the costs, they made the difficult decision to stop selling bags.

Zasaka

Anes Tembo, a Zasaka Private Extension Agents (PEA), stands in one of her farmer’s fields and displays cowpea nearly ready for harvest. The farmer is set to harvest more than half a ton of cowpea seed from which she will double her annual income. Each PEA provides agronomic and financial management training to a cohort of 40 farmers, overseeing their loans and aggregating final products for sale to Zasaka.

But Zasaka’s model had always included more than just bags, so the young company turned its attention to legume seeds like cowpeas—buying, packaging and selling them to farmers, sometimes directly and sometimes through the government and non-governmental organizations.

“We intend to be the leading seed company in our sector by volume and quality. The goal is to raise incomes of tens of thousands of farmers through direct production relationships while increasing the availability of legumes to farmers across the region,” said Jensen. He notes that this year Zasaka will process and package 440,000 pounds of seed produced by 400 farmers.

Zasaka

A group of farmers attends a training led by a field supervisor at Zasaka’s base of operations, the POD.

The company also delivers training—farmers who have worked with Zasaka have seen increases in maize yields of 75 percent. Zasaka now employs 9 full-time people and is expanding this May to reach 2,000 farmers under the supervision of 50 Private Extension Agents (PEAS) dedicated to answering their questions on agronomy and farm management.

During an interview from Chipata, Zambia, Jensen described the tremendous satisfaction he feels from the work he is doing. “We are about two months out from harvest now. Everywhere you look you see full fields and the bounty to come.”