Posted: August 21, 2017

RAIN grants from the Entrepreneurship & Innovation Program help move discoveries from the lab to the marketplace

Penn State RAIN grant winners Dr. Kelli Hoover and Dr. John Janowiak show the damage to an ash log from the invasive emerald ash borer.

Penn State RAIN grant winners Dr. Kelli Hoover and Dr. John Janowiak show the damage to an ash log from the invasive emerald ash borer.

Penn State research teams working on two distinct and promising discoveries -- a new, energy-efficient treatment to kill destructive insects in wood and new tomato plant varieties bred for Pennsylvania conditions -- have each won $75,000 Research Applications for Innovation grants to bring their discoveries to market.

The College of Agricultural Sciences awards the grants through its Entrepreneurship & Innovation Program.

"We have invested a lot already in the program to develop new tomato varieties," said Dr. Majid Foolad, Professor of Plant Genetics in Penn State's College of Agricultural Sciences.

Foolad has successfully bred and commercialized tomatoes with disease resistance that are rich in lycopene, which may reduce the risk of cancer, heart disease and age-related disorders. Foolad has collaborated with plant breeders at Johnny's Selected Seeds on a new, high-lycopene tomato variety to be released this fall.

Foolad developed hundreds of new tomato breeding lines suited to the climate in Pennsylvania and the Northeast, and resistant to the blight diseases that can wipe out a tomato crop in 5-7 days.

"The final and most important step in a breeding program is to market the new varieties. It's a great help to get funding from the college to expand upon that and commercialize our tomato varieties," said Foolad.

College of Agricultural Sciences faculty with promising discoveries compete annually for RAIN grants, part of the Entrepreneurship & Innovation Program. The RAIN program aims to spur solutions and economic development in central Pennsylvania with awards of $50,000 grants, each matched with $25,000 from the Penn State Research Foundation.

"I am excited about the opportunities that the RAIN grant program has provided to our entrepreneurial faculty," said Dr. Gary Thompson, Associate Dean for Research and Graduate Education. "This is just one step in the many required to take an innovative idea originating in the laboratory to a product ready for the marketplace -- but this step comes at a crucial time in the process."

Dr. John Janowiak -- professor of wood products engineering, processing and manufacturing -- and Entomologist Dr. Kelli Hoover discovered a way to kill destructive pests like the emerald ash border and pinewood nematode in wood for pallets and other shipping components.

Drs. Janowiak and Hoover developed a patent-pending wood treatment chamber that heats wood in a unique configuration using radio frequency waves, making the process energy-efficient. The radio frequency treatment works like a microwave oven -- both are types of dielectric heating -- but radio frequency can penetrate several meters into wood while microwaves cannot.

"We believe this technology innovation has significant ramifications to help control new pest introductions from destroying our extremely valuable forests and urban tree ecosystems," said Dr. Janowiak, "and eliminate further multi-billion-dollar economic losses from destructive pests like emerald ash borer."

The treatment is poised to replace fumigating wood with methyl bromide -- a chemical that is being phased out -- and help the U.S. wood products industry to retain export markets likely to reject chemical-treated wood, which could spark increased demand for plastic shipping pallets and loss of market share for the wood industry.

"If they can't use wooden pallets any more, that's a really big hit to the wood industry. What do we do with 40 percent of our logs if we can't put them into wooden shipping pallets?" said Dr. Janowiak.

About the RAIN Grant Program

Since 2013, the Entrepreneurship & Innovation Program at the College of Agricultural Sciences has awarded more than $1 million in RAIN grants to 16 projects showing commercial progress.

RAIN funding helps researchers overcome hurdles to commercialize their discoveries. The money can be used to complete trials and experiments that demonstrate a new product or process will work -- known as "proof of concept" -- and validate a discovery's economic viability and market potential.

"This is a key early step in commercialization since it shows that something can actually be moved into the market, and is more than just a neat idea," said Scott Welsh, a managing partner at Fieldstone Innovations, which advises ag-tech and agribusiness startups. Welsh serves as the entrepreneur-in-residence for the E&I Program, and mentors faculty members through the commercialization process.

"Penn State Research Foundation matching funds are a key component of the RAIN program because they leverage college resources to support more robust projects, and they demonstrate the high level of commitment to entrepreneurship and innovation by the entire University," said Welsh.

"The RAIN Grant Program is a proven success supporting projects at the proof-of-concept stage that result in successful business start-ups," said Dr. Dan Azzara, director of the Entrepreneurship and Innovation Program and Alan R. Warehime Professor of Agribusiness.

Past grantees include entomologist Dr. Nina Jenkins, whose team discovered a non-toxic biopesticide effective in killing bedbugs. Jenkins founded ConidioTec and won RAIN funding in 2013 to help pay the costs of seeking Environmental Protection Agency approval, which the Aprehend biopesticide received in spring 2017.

InterSeeder Technologies, another company formed by a RAIN-funded team, developed patented farm equipment that allows farmers to fertilize a corn or soybean crop, spray herbicide and seed a cover crop in a single pass through their fields.

About Entrepreneurship & Innovation at the College of Agricultural Sciences

The Entrepreneurship & Innovation Program represents the College of Agricultural Sciences' renewed commitment to innovation, creating value and economic growth in Pennsylvania.

E&I has helped five new companies sprout from research at the college. More than 70 faculty members have worked toward commercializing their research, leading to 10 patents and 19 licensing agreements. Faculty also partner with food and agricultural science companies on research projects.

E&I offers mentoring, instruction and pitch competitions for undergraduate students. Ag Springboard awards $10,000 annually to the best student pitches for solutions in the agricultural sciences. (Think TV's Shark Tank -- but for ag sciences students.) The E&I program has helped more than 30 students start their own businesses and non-profit ventures.