Innovator Article

Growing A Sustainable Future
$1 Million Grant Helps Develop Sustainable Agricultural Businesses, Advance Innovative Technologies

By Marianna Skoczek

For years, UC Davis postdoctoral researcher Nora Khaldi studied the evolution of mammals, fungi, bacteria, and both plant- and mammal-derived foods, developing algorithms that analyze data to answer essential scientific questions.

Her work remained strictly academic—until she discovered  a means to mine food for  bioactive peptides, which  have a direct and active impact on health, such as lowering cholesterol, or diabetes. “Unlike low-fat, low-sugar or low-salt products,” explains Khaldi, “these peptides aren’t just healthy: They  actively fight disease.”

Determined that her life-saving  discovery would make it to market, Khaldi enrolled in the 2012 Food + Health Entrepreneurship Academy, offered by  the UC Davis Child Family Institute for Innovation and Entrepreneurship.

During the four-day intensive academy, she says, “I learned much about delivering a successful food-related business. More importantly, I gained the courage to really drive growth in my  own start-up, and a network of contacts to help me do this.”

Last summer, Khaldi launched Nuritas, which today is ready to revolutionize the food industry. Nuritas uses computer programs to search food genomes and discover molecules that help people actively reduce certain diseases, and works with food companies to search their ingredients for molecules that are beneficial for human health.

When Davis Roots, a business accelerator bridging the city of Davis and the university, opened its doors last spring, Nuritas was among its charter clients.  The fledging company received office  space and support to develop a detailed launch strategy, including a business  plan, fundraising goals and project milestones, as well as opportunities for Khaldi to grow Nuritas’ network with experienced entrepreneurs, investors,  and patent and corporate lawyers.

Today, Khaldi says, Nuritas is “signing off contracts with a number of multinational food companies and expanding our team, both in Davis and in our new office in Dublin, Ireland. We are preparing to attract investors and expect to meet with interested parties in the second quarter of 2013.”

GREENER ACRES

Nuritas represents the kind of ground-breaking food- and agriculture-related start-up that will benefit from the UC Davis Sustainable AgTech Innovation Center, established in September with  a $1 million award in the U.S. Department  of Commerce’s Economic Development Administration’s 2012 i6 Challenge Grant competition.

UC Davis was one of just six institutions nationwide, and the only one in California, to receive an i6 Challenge Grant.

The new center, within the Child Family Institute for Innovation and Entrepreneurship—a Center of Excellence at the Graduate School of Management—is  a creative collaboration with the nonprofit Sacramento Area Regional Technology Alliance (SARTA) to accelerate entrepreneurship and economic development  in the nine-county Sacramento region.

“The center presents a great opportunity for us to expand our team and focus efforts on building out broader collab- orative networks across the campus and across the region to help bring sustainable agriculture technologies out of our research labs and into the market,” says Child Family Institute Director Andrew Hargadon, the Charles J. Soderquist  Chair in Entrepreneurship.

“The new innovation center encompasses emerging technologies in every aspect of the spectrum of the modern agriculture supply chain, from farm  to fork—and fuel,” Hargadon adds.

The center provides a virtual incubator for new agricultural practices, water and energy efficiency in production and food processing, advances in nutrition, food quality and safety, and new food products. Central to this is a growing network of academic, industry and professional organizations that support the process  to develop new ventures.

Opportunity Workshops, to be held  this spring and again in the fall, will offer training, practical tools and knowledge networks for aspiring entrepreneurs.

An inaugural Sustainable AgTech Entrepreneurship Academy, to be held October 22–24, will help agriculture entrepreneurs identify market needs  and opportunities, and will create “food chain” clusters of innovation.

A seed grants program will provide funding of up to $25,000 to eligible scientists and researchers who are committed to exploring the commercial applications of their technologies. “There is excellent infrastructure at UC Davis around innovation, commercialization and technology transfer,” notes Bob Adams, the center’s executive director  and entrepreneur-in-residence. “These seed grants can complement that work.”

Adams brings a wealth of experience  in sustainability, innovation and transformation; partnership and network building; and agricultural and environ- mental issues to the new enterprise. The director of business partnerships at Sustainable Conservation (San Francisco) and a fellow at IDEO, one of the world’s leading design and innovation consul- tancies, Adams is also a Central Valley farmer who produces heritage fruits and vegetables, grains and olive oil.

“UC Davis has an almost unique set  of qualities for taking on the larger questions around sustainability, especially in agriculture,” says Adams. “As a land grant institution, we have a history and  a practice of applying research to practical solutions that better our world. And our programs in the sciences, engineering, medicine, management and law ensure  a portfolio of capabilities that are both broad and deep.

“This is an exciting time to expand  the connections between agriculture, innovation and entrepreneurship and  to play a role in enabling leading-edge solutions that will benefit our society  and the planet as a whole.”

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