College of Ag Sciences researchers win funding to commercialize discoveries

by Lisa Duchene
August 05, 2015

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. -- A biodegradable version of plastic film used in packaging. A mushroom that stays fresh longer. A biomedical foam to help wounds heal. A diagnostic test to help dairy farmers become more profitable.

These are promising technologies that earned faculty researchers in Penn State's College of Agricultural Sciences grants of $75,000 each to help them transform research projects into viable products on the market.

The college's Entrepreneurship and Innovation Program awarded the Research Applications for Innovation grants -- known as RAIN grants -- to provide financial support that will help researchers realize the commercial potential of their work. The grants are designed to promote innovation and economic development by encouraging the transfer of technologies to existing and start-up companies.

"We are pleased that faculty continue to bring research forward that has the potential for commercialization," said Gary Thompson, the college's associate dean for research and graduate education. "This is exactly what the RAIN grant program was designed to encourage. Four projects were selected from a very competitive pool highlighting the potential to advance economic development through research in our college."

Since 2013, 13 projects that show commercial promise have received a total of $625,000 in RAIN grant funding. For the first time this year, the Penn State Research Foundation contributed $25,000 to each grant, in a two-to-one match, through its Fund for Innovation.

"The mission of the fund is to promote commercialization of the new ideas and discoveries generated by our research programs," said Peter Linder, entrepreneur-in-residence, Office of the Vice President for Research.

"The fund is another indication of Penn State's renewed commitment to translating and implementing our most innovative findings. Commercializing promising ideas, creating new companies and new jobs, increases the already sizeable positive impact that Penn State has on the economy of Pennsylvania."

Following are this year's recipients and descriptions of their projects:

--Jeffrey Catchmark, associate professor of agricultural and biological engineering, leads a team that developed an environmentally friendly coating to replace petroleum-based coatings on food packaging.

"All the products are based on food materials," Catchmark said. "Everything is not only sustainable, compostable and manufactured in an ecologically friendly manner, but it's even edible. My group uses food chemistry to solve key social and environmental problems, such as package-based pollution."

Catchmark's group worked with blends of low-cost food polysaccharides -- the form in which most natural carbohydrates occur -- in processing methods that could be used on a large scale. They developed a production process for a material with surface particles that stitch together when they are dehydrated to form an insoluble, solid-like barrier. This patent-pending film can replace plastic coatings in food packaging such as pizza boxes, paperboard, and disposable plates and cups.

"These barrier coatings have numerous other potential applications, including water-resistant paper, coatings for ceiling tiles and wallboard, and food coatings for keeping taco shells crispy," said Catchmark. "The adhesive properties are useful for packaging, as well as for other applications such as formaldehyde-free wood fiber composites for construction."


RAIN grant funds will support the building of a pilot production facility in the Agricultural and Biological Engineering Department so Catchmark's team can work with companies to test the product's commercial viability.

--Catchmark's group also has worked with trauma surgeons in the Department of Surgery at the Penn State Hershey Medical Center/College of Medicine to develop a starch-based foam to help stop bleeding and promote clotting and healing of wounds ranging from surface cuts to deep body wounds.

The project was awarded $75,000 jointly from the colleges of Agricultural Sciences and Medicine. The co-principal investigator is Scott Armen, chief of the Division of Trauma, Acute Care, and Critical Care Surgery in the College of Medicine.

The soft, resilient foam also can be used during surgery. It absorbs blood and body fluids, expands to put pressure on a wound and conforms to the wound's shape. Once applied, the foam's surface transitions to a gel that promotes healing. The foam can be left inside the body because it is made of bioabsorbable materials. A patent is pending on the foam.

The new foam product originally was conceived as a replacement for Styrofoam packaging until it exhibited unique properties well-suited to biomedical applications. RAIN grant funds will help the team to develop and demonstrate an optimized composition and production process, one of the next steps to commercializing it.

--In a typical dairy farming operation, the goal is for each cow in the herd to become pregnant and calve once a year. However, only about 35 percent of cows will conceive successfully following an insemination, and farmers typically must wait at least 30 days to test to find out whether insemination led to conception. There is no early test for pregnancy status in cows like the tests available for humans.

Troy Ott, professor of reproductive physiology, has developed and patented a diagnostic test to tell dairy farmers within 18 days whether an insemination failed, instead of after 30 days, saving farmers valuable time and money.

The technology is not a pregnancy test, Ott noted, as a significant number of pregnancies detected 18 days after insemination will fail by 45 days. Rather, the test will show if the cow has not conceived, a condition known in the dairy industry as being "open."

"If we can detect those open cows and submit them for re-insemination sooner, we can save farmers money and ensure that dairies can maintain that yearly calving interval," Ott said. The technology is now patented in nine countries.

Cows that do not conceive beyond about 100 days from their last calving start to cost farmers money, increasing from about $1 a day at 100 days up to $2.50 to $3 a day by 150 days after calving. Because they are not pregnant, they also are at greater risk for being culled from the herd.

The patented test allows farmers to shorten the time between insemination attempts, and therefore shortens the total time spent and total cost between pregnancies.

The RAIN grant will fund research to validate the diagnostic test for use in dairy cattle in preparation for commercialization, Ott explained.

--Yinong Yang, associate professor of plant pathology and environmental microbiology, has developed an antibrowning mushroom with an extended shelf life. Yang is seeking a patent.

  • RAIN grant - biodegradable film

    Kai Chi, doctoral candidate in agricultural and biological engineering, tests the ability of a biodegradable coating to prevent oil from seeping through a pizza box. The film was developed by Jeffrey Catchmark, associate professor of agricultural and biological engineering, who has been awarded a RAIN grant to commercialize the technology.

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    IMAGE: Penn State

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Last Updated August 12, 2015