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AgBio Challenge supports entrepreneurial research

Faculty Research Support

From automated apple harvesting to pesticide management in Michigan vineyards, the MTRAC AgBio Innovation Challenge has completed a successful second year in awarding grants to research projects meant to solve specific industry challenges.

Seven grants totaling $30,000 will support researchers in vetting their early-stage AgBio technology concepts. The awards are funded through the MTRAC AgBio Innovation Hub from the Michigan Strategic Fund and administered by the Michigan Economic Development Corporation.

“The MTRAC AgBio Innovation Hub plays a significant role in advancing the commercialization of agriculture biology projects from some of our state’s most innovative researchers,” said Denise Graves, university relations director for the MEDC’s Entrepreneurship & Innovation initiative. “Michigan’s agriculture industry makes up a substantial portion of the state’s workforce and economy, and MEDC programs like MTRAC play a critical role in ensuring entrepreneurial success on both a statewide and national level.”

To compete, researchers submit concept papers identifying how their research could help solve industry challenges. The papers are reviewed confidentially and scored according to criteria that include both commercial potential and risk assessment value. Prizes ranging from $1,000 to $10,000 are made based on these scores.

The awards are meant to encourage further exploration and development of technologies with relevance to AgBio industries. By advancing their work to the prototype stage, researchers may then qualify for translational funding under MTRAC or other programs.

The awarded research projects for the 2021 Innovation Challenge were varied and impressive, said Joe Affholter, program director of the Innovation Hub.

“This 2021 AgBio Innovation Challenge brought in both early-stage and some fairly advanced technology ideas ranging from the bioproduction of industrial chemicals to animal pathobiology to pesticide management, improved vineyard sustainability, carbon capture and environmental improvement,” Affholter said. “This is a truly impressive group of concept papers.”

2021 award recipients include:

Innovation Award ($7,500)

  • Karen Chou, Ph.D. (Animal Science, MSU): “Pesticide Management Program Application, a Sustainable Tool for Michigan Vineyards.”
  • Matti Kiupel, Ph.D. (Pathobiology and Diagnostic Investigation, MSU): “Early detection of Canine Malignant Lymphoma in Blood Samples Using Proteomics.”

Exploration Award ($5,000)

  • Karen Draths, Ph.D. (Chemistry, MSU): “Synthesis of 3-Hydroxypropionic Acid from Methane and Carbon Dioxide.”
  • Kevin Walker, Ph.D. (Chemistry, MSU): “Increasing Enzymatic Specificity to Assemble Acyloins.”
  • Woongkul Lee, Ph.D. (Electrical and Computer Engineering, MSU): “Retrofitting Solar Microinverter to Irrigation Pump for Improving Water and Energy Use Efficiency.”

Activation Award ($2,500)

  • Kyle Lammers and Zhaojian Li, Ph.D. (Mechanical Engineering, MSU): “Improving Automated Apple Harvesting with Laser Based Scanning.”
  • Keliang Wang, Ph.D. (Division of Coatings and Diamond Technologies, Fraunhofer USA Midwest Center, MSU): “Plasma Destruction Targeting all PFAS Species in Landfill Leachate.”

The inaugural Innovation Challenge in 2020 attracted researchers from around the state to submit proposals that apply emerging technologies to address problems in the food, feed, fuels, fiber and biomaterials markets, and the technological and ecological systems that support them.

“The pilot edition of the Innovation Challenge encompassed areas such as farm-level mental health, clean-burning wood energy systems, nanoparticle-based agricultural drone sensors and clean-burning wood energy systems,” said Affholter. “It was truly a remarkable crop of ideas.”

The Innovation Challenge saw diverse submissions from universities across Michigan despite the looming pandemic. There is no specific mold that awardees must fit. For example, one top-scoring paper came from MSU’s Department of Communications while another came from Plant and Microbial Sciences.

“In addition to Michigan State, we also saw strong, award-winning papers submitted from Western Michigan and Central Michigan universities,” Affholter added. “We are delighted to connect with so many skilled innovators around the state. We look forward to many of these researchers turning their early-stage ideas into commercially viable technologies.”

2020 award recipients include:

Innovation Award ($7,500)

  • Eric Patterson, Ph.D. (Plant Soil and Microbial Sciences, MSU): “Foliar applied RNA to break Herbicide Resistance.”
  • Amanda Holmstrom, Ph.D. (Department of Communications, MSU): “Addressing Farm Stress via a Highly Tailored Mobile Application.”

Exploration Award ($5,000)

  • Johnson Asumadu, PE (Electrical and Computer Engineering Department, Western Michigan University): “Magnetic Nanoparticle-based Gyroscope Sensor in Agricultural Drones.”
  • Cheryl Swenson, Ph.D. (Department of Pathobiology and Diagnostic Investigation, MSU): “Detection of Disease Using Machine Learning.”

Activation Award ($2,500)

  • Yousef Haseli, Ph.D. (School of Engineering and Technology, Central Michigan University): “A Clean Wood Heating System”
  • Qi Hua Fan, Ph.D. (Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering, MSU): “Active Trapping of Nitrogen Oxide Using Biochar”

Inspiration Award ($1,000)

  • Bahar Aliakbarian, Ph.D. (Department of Supply Chain Management, MSU): “Smart Recycling Platform to Tackle Plastic Bottle Waste Management Issue”
  • Ping Wang, MD, Ph.D. (Department of Radiology, MSU): “Artificial Intelligence Analysis of Magnetic Particle Imaging for Tracking Transplanted Stem Cell Therapy for Diabetes in Animal Models.”
  • Dong Younsuk, Ph.D. (Biosystems and Agricultural Engineering, MSU): “Implementation of a Low-Cost Sensor Monitoring System to Improve Irrigation Water Use Efficiency and Disease Management.”
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