Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation

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UW/Industry partnerships yield better solutions

WARF logo over image of person's hands holding soil over field of soil
Photo of Christopher Salm
Christopher Salm
Photo of Kathryn VandenBosch
Kathryn VandenBosch

Wisconsin agriculture is making big news. As we embark on new global partnerships and get set to break fresh ground, let’s take a moment to reflect on the Wisconsin Idea. One of the principles of this idea is that university accomplishments can change lives across our state and have an impact on society.

As the Dean of the College of Agricultural and Life Sciences (CALS) at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and as a co-founder of an innovative processed meat business who is currently building a new company with UW technology, we believe a key to successfully living the Wisconsin Idea is to link new knowledge with the problems that industry and communities want to solve.

This is especially important in agriculture. Roughly one in nine people working in Wisconsin holds a job related to agriculture, including farmers and their employees, service providers like veterinarians and fuel suppliers, and workers in related businesses like food processing. In addition to those working in agricultural sectors, all of us eat, and we expect our food to be safe, nutritious, delicious with environmentally responsible production.

In order to achieve these objectives, industry and universities need each other. Businesses need the new discoveries generated in university labs, and university scientists need the practical challenges and perspectives from the marketplace to inspire and inform their research. Industry is always asking: How do we leverage our product stream to best serve consumer needs and deliver more value? University researchers are always asking: How does the natural world work, and can we apply what we learn about it to improve health, agriculture and businesses? These are mutually beneficial conditions that create strong partnerships to drive innovation.

Innovation, in our view, is different from discovery and invention. We define innovation as the implementation of something new and beneficial, making an invention available in the marketplace. It’s the commercialization of entrepreneurial science, which is at the root of the Wisconsin Idea. More than a century ago, CALS researchers and industry partners fought rickets with vitamin D fortified foods and ensured consistent quality of Wisconsin milk with the Babcock butterfat test.

That brings us to the exciting news about Ab E Discovery – a young company that grew out of University of Wisconsin innovation. The company is developing state-of-the-art nutrition technologies that apply science to key challenges, including replacing antibiotics and improving animal health.

To take one of these technologies—an egg antibody focused on supporting animals’ gut health, and thereby growth and welfare—a step further, Ab E Discovery recently formed a global in-licensing agreement with Elanco Animal Heath, a division of Eli Lilly and Co. The company will also break fresh ground this month on a manufacturing facility in Waterloo. The 25,000 square foot facility will employ about 20 production scientists and engineers in Jefferson County.

One of the founders of Ab E Discovery was the late Mark Cook. A passionate professor of animal science, Mark was skilled at challenging the status quo and pushing for answers. He partnered with the Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation on some 50 U.S. patents and more than 150 international patents, and he started several companies.

Mark took a challenge from industry and framed this objective: How can you get more value out of food animals and benefit human and animal health?

One result of this inquiry was his discovery of a protein in chicken eggs that could be blended with animal feed as an antibiotics replacement. He brought his innovation to the marketplace by helping to found Ab E Discovery and develop this protein for human and animal health benefits.

Mark was a leader in the boardroom and the classroom who included hard-working students on his patents. Through his mentorship and teaching, he inspired a new generation of researchers to become entrepreneurs, stoking their interest in commercializing their discoveries.

The Wisconsin Idea reminds us that, with collaboration and innovation, we have the ability to change the world by matching academic interest with a real need. This is also the legacy of Mark Cook. We encourage those of you in industry to find a university collaborator to translate a discovery for a new innovation. For university scientists, we hope you will follow Mark’s lead and reach out to an industry partner who can help to frame your inquiries to guide new applications. Such partnerships can both change lives and improve communities.

Christopher P. Salm is co-founder of Salm Partners in Denmark, Wisconsin, and CEO & co-founder (with Mark Cook and Jordan Sand) of Ab E Discovery in Madison, with a new manufacturing subsidiary being built in Waterloo, Wisconsin. Kathryn VandenBosch is Dean of the UW-Madison College of Agricultural and Life Sciences. This commentary is part of a series of articles organized by the Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation (WARF). For over 90 years WARF has promoted a cycle of innovation through advancement of University research discoveries to the market and reinvestment in research at UW-Madison. Comments on this piece are encouraged at [email protected]. See warf.org/WisconsinInnovates for other articles in this series or WARF’s Cycle of Innovation for more details on WARF.