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CREATE IGERT Trainee Combines Research with Entrepreneurship Training


After attending the 2009 IGERT Annual Meeting, Lucas Arzola, a CREATE IGERT trainee pursuing his PhD in Chemical Engineering at UC Davis along with a Designated Emphasis in Biotechnology, was particularly excited about the Invention to Venture workshop that he attended during the meeting. He had an interest in starting his own company and could envision the practical applications of his research to help solve important societal problems.

In Fall 2009 he assembled a student team comprised of an MBA student (Bob Kays), a IP and Regulatory Affairs analyst (Gabriel Paulino) at PIPRA, a nonprofit organization at UCD and an undergraduate student (Ying Ng) in Agricultural Economics, and recruited a scientific advisory board to help guide the team (named “Inserogen” which loosely means to “plant a gene”) to compete in the 2009-2010 Big Bang Business Plan Competition at UC Davis. The underlying technology for their business was based on Lucas’ research experience in developing processes for rapid production of recombinant proteins in plant tissues but the application was focused on development of a manufacturing platform for rapid, low cost production of vaccines. He recognized that the mismatch between vaccine production and patient demand in the 2009 H1N1 pandemic was due to the slow and out-dated egg-based vaccine production technology and he felt that the plant based processes he was developing in the lab were better suited to meet this need.

Inserogen’s business plan proposed a poultry vaccine for Newcastle disease, produced in harvested tobacco leaves, as an initial product since it was less expensive to develop and to obtain regulatory approval for an animal vaccine and also provided a faster entry into the marketplace. Newcastle disease is a severe viral disease in poultry that can also affect humans and has had a significant economic impact on the poultry industry. After submitting their business plan and presenting their pitch to judges from the venture capital community and a large public audience, the team won the Big Bang Business Plan competition in May 2010, receiving a check for $15,000 to further develop their idea. But they didn’t stop there. Lucas and his teammates, participated in the UC San Francisco Idea to IPO course where they expanded their network and refined their business plan and also participated in the UC Berkeley business plan competition where they won a $1,000 prize for the Elevator Pitch Award.

Lucas and his advisor, Professor McDonald, recently received a grant from the National Collegiate Inventors and Innovators Alliance Advanced E-team program which will allow them to demonstrate proof of concept (process prototyping) for the production of a Newcastle vaccine using the transient tobacco-based expression technology. Lucas has also won accolades for his dissertation research which is focused on plant-based production of a treatment for anthrax exposure, including first prize in the Health Sector poster competition at the Agricultural Biotechnology International Conference in Canada in September 2010, first prize in the International Society for Pharmaceutical Engineering SF Bay Area Student Poster Competition in South San Francisco, CA in April 2011, and the Dean’s Prize for Best Oral Presentation, College of Engineering at the 2011 Interdisciplinary Graduate and Professional Symposium at UC Davis in April 2011. As part of his CREATE-IGERT training he will be spending this summer doing an internship at the National University of Ireland in Maynooth in Professor Phil Dix’s lab to learn how to produce recombinant proteins using chloroplast transformation methods.

Address Goals

Lucas’ interdisciplinary training has allowed him to identify opportunities to apply his research to solve important societal problems. This will benefit the nation in terms of providing new technologies that will allow faster response to pandemics and will also encourage the development of new businesses/industries that utilize green, plant-based technologies for production of high value products. Lucas received his B.S. in Industrial Biotechnology at the University of Puerto Rico, Mayaguez and is pursing his PhD in Chemical Engineering with a Designated Emphasis in Biotechnology at the University of California at Davis.