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CREATE-IGERT Trainee, Lucas Arzola, as Entrepreneurial Lead in NSF Innovation Corps Program


After attending the Invention2Venture innovation workshop at the 2009 IGERT Annual Meeting, Lucas Arzola, a CREATE IGERT trainee pursuing his Ph.D. in Chemical Engineering at UC Davis, set out to capitalize on his interest in starting his own company and envisioned the practical applications of his research to help solve important societal problems. Later that year, he assembled an interdisciplinary student team, drafted a plan, and claimed first prize in the UC Davis Big Bang Business Plan Competition. Working under the Inserogen (loosely means to “plant a gene”) name, the team went on to claim other top business plan awards from UCSF (Finalist at the Idea to IPO Competition), UC Berkeley (Elevator Pitch Award) and the National Collegiate Inventors and Innovators Alliance (Advanced E-Team Grant). The underlying technology for the business idea is based on Arzola’s IGERT research experience in developing processes for rapid production of recombinant proteins in plant tissues, but the application is focused on 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that the mismatch between vaccine production and patient demand in the 2009 H1N1 pandemic was due to the slow and outdated egg-based vaccine production technology.

To advance this application, Arzola and IGERT PI Dr. Karen McDonald were selected for the first NSF Innovation-Corps (I-Corps) cohorts in Fall 2011. Called SwiftVax, the faster, cheaper, and greener vaccine manufacturing process uses non-transgenic tobacco plants. I-Corps support allows them to pursue development of tobacco plants as “vaccine biofactories” through the targeted use of the microbe Agrobacterium tumefaciens and plant viruses. This method aims to increase vaccine yield, lower capital and operating costs compared to traditional vaccine manufacturing processes, and reduce vaccine development time from months to weeks.

Such improvements in vaccine cost and time to market have important implications for infectious disease outbreaks such as the H1N1 pandemic. As a result of what they learned by interviewing many people during the I-Corps program the team made a pivot and is now focusing on using its novel manufacturing platform for the production of therapeutic protein indicated for an orphan disease. Participation in the NSF I-Corps program included enrollment in the Lean Launch Pad course, taught at Stanford by entrepreneur Steve Blank. The program assisted the team in analyzing the commercial feasibility of the technology platform, by having them go outside the research laboratory and interview potential customers, investors, partners, and key opinion leaders. Due to the knowledge gained through these discussions, the Inserogen team believes that they have found a business model that will allow them to successfully commercialize the technology.

Arzola expects to obtain his Ph.D. this year and to serve as the startup’s initial CEO once the company is incorporated, while Dr. McDonald will continue to mentor the team by serving on its Scientific Advisory Board. Lucas and Dr. McDonald participated in the Innovation Panel at the 2012 IGERT PI meeting to share their experiences as participants in the NSF I-Corp program, and to describe program components aimed at innovation and entrepreneurial training.

Address Goals

In order for basic discoveries to have an impact in addressing important societal problems they need to transition from the laboratory and into the marketplace. The skills, approaches and tools needed to accomplish this transition are not typically encountered or taught in doctoral programs in the STEM fields. This activity helps university faculty and students bring new technologies developed through basic research into the marketplace. It also helps broaden participation in the STEM entrepreneurial workforce.