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Michigan State gives ag innovation the green light

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The cultivation of agricultural innovation has been a cornerstone of the land-grant mission for well over a century. The more it’s embraced and encouraged, the more benefit we, as a farming community, get from it.

For the past few years, Michigan State University has given its faculty members the tools to take their AgBio research to the commercial market, but this year, MSU has expanded its nurturing and support of biotechnology statewide.

Dubbed the state’s first “innovation hub,” the Michigan Translational Research and Commercialization (MTRAC) program is housed on the Lansing campus and helps to accelerate the commercial development of AgBio projects.

It’s competitive — of the 64 proposals received before summer, just 24 were funded. The process is also time-intensive.

“If you have technology that is commercializable, it is then put into the process to get a patent or whatever other protection would be there,” said Innovation Hub Director Karen Studer-Rabeler. “It’s very legalistic, but the reality is, in order to commercialize, you need to have that as a vehicle. Companies that are putting in a lot of resources, they need to have some kind of exclusivity, particularly in this technology area. Patents are often that route.”

The money for the program comes from the Michigan Strategic Fund and MSU — a combined effort of $2.27 million in funding. Even more money is approved for future use. Among the projects that have been given the green light are:

  • Developing “trait genes” that selectively promote high-value downstream products
  • Developing microbes and algae for production of chemicals and biofuels
  • Developing agricultural technologies to reduce the environmental footprint and resource requirements (water, nutrients) in farming

MTRAC began solely as an MSU program but has now become a statewide resource for other researchers to participate and advance their own agricultural biotechnology projects. This was a huge step in terms of the program’s overall growth and reach, and it’s seen as a step toward long-term sustainability. MTRAC’s innovation projects, once completed, can be licensed to companies for commercial purposes, thus generating economic revenue for the state.

“From the state perspective, they want to see economic development, so the goals for the program relate to jobs, follow-up funding, the number of products that are out there, and the licenses,” Studer-Rabeler said. “They see the universities as the foundation for innovation in the state, so they see it as an economic development piece as well.”

“This is another way for land-grant universities to have an impact and to help society.”

While the dynamics of educational and research funding are complicated and sometimes indirect, the hope is that promoting innovation will pay dividends and come back into the school to help pay for further research.

“This is another way for land-grant universities to have an impact and to help society,” Studer-Rabeler said.

Federica Brandizzi, a plant biology professor, is among the MSU researchers being helped by MTRAC. She is studying ways to boost soybean and alfalfa yields by targeting genetic traits in the hopes of increasing a plant’s biomass. If ultimately successful throughout testing, her hope is to license the technology to a business, which can then sell the seeds to farmers. These plants would not only be bigger, but they would have the potential to produce more seeds.

“There is a need to make plants more productive,” Brandizzi said. “So we are engineering them using traits from other plants.”

She said MTRAC saw the possibilities to make something bigger with this technology, bigger than what many researchers are used to, and the program helped translate this technology into the field.

“I think it’s wonderful because it provides the opportunity for scientists like me to come out of their own lab and try something new,” she said. “MTRAC gives you all the tools to be successful.”

Studer-Rabeler said that commercial entities are asked what types of field data they want to see so that the testing is directly applicable. With growing seasons occurring just once a year and expenses always a consideration, it’s important that the right kinds of tests be conducted the first time around.

The time frame of any of these projects can be from one year for just the project to three years for the commercialization aspect. MTRAC will continue working with those who may not have active funding but are working through the process to get commercialized.

“The end goal of the program is to get technology out so that it can be utilized for the public’s greater good,” Studer-Rabeler said.

With so many hurdles and potential complications during the commercialization process, the guidance from MTRAC is not only important but highly welcome by the faculty who are taking part.

“For many faculty, especially those who are later in their career, they want to see their life’s work being used,” she said. “Now they see a way for that to be possible.”

 

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