10 Jan Scientist takes back patents and develops product others ignored
Madison, Wis. — Mark Cook, a tenured animal sciences professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, had seen his patents get licensed out to several businesses, only to sit on the shelves.
He’d been working since the mid 1980s on biotechnology that was was not being promoted by any of the businesses to which it had been licensed through the Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation.
“This technology has just been sitting there since about 1994 or ’95,” Cook said. “No one was moving it forward, even though a company had licensed it. I improved dramatically on the platform and got some new licenses, which opened a window for me to get this rolling. I wanted to get heavily involved in this so that my patents wouldn’t sit and rot.”
So when entrepreneurs Bob Kirschner and Gregg Johnson asked if he was interested in starting a company to promote his technology, Cook went immediately to WARF, licensed his patents back, and got on board. Since his technology hadn’t moved anywhere with other companies, Cook decided that he’d have to get directly involved with the business.
“Basically, Bob and Gregg had a model in which they were looking for BioTech patents that were coming from the University of Wisconsin that had been issued through WARF. It was good timing for me, and good timing for them,” Cook said.
The three co-founded OvaTech Inc. (originally August, LLC) in August 2001. The company commercializes Cook’s patented antibody, anti-phospholipase or aPLA2, which improves feed and growth efficiency in livestock. The company hopes that its product will replace growth-promoting antibiotics that have been found harmful to humans.
OvaTech produces its antibody by injecting laying hens with proteins. The hens lay eggs that are rich with the antibodies their bodies create in response. The company enhances these antibodies, dries the eggs, and sells the dried egg powder to agricultural companies. These companies add the powder to their livestock’s feed, enhancing the animals’ appetites and growth.
The start-up has contracted with a large, integrated laying company, S&R Farms of Whitewater, Wisconsin. The farm is the largest in Wisconsin, with about 1.5 million layer hens. After S&R produces the eggs, OvaTech will use another Wisconsin company that enhances the antibodies in the egg product, and then takes that product to the dryer. When the enhanced antibodies are in dried egg-powder form, the final product will be sold to independent livestock farmers and feed mills.
For now, the company is in the commercial testing stage.
“OvaTech plans to enter the U.S. swine marketplace in mid-2005 and U.S. and international swine and poultry markets in 2006,” said Bob Kirschner, OvaTech’s president and CEO. “In the meantime, it will continue conducting trials to further enhance its product and will continue with its research and development program for intellectual property portfolio development.”
In its five-phase plan, OvaTech Inc. has outlined that it intends to sell its product directly to the top ten pork producers in the United States – who control 66 percent of the market – and then move to direct sales to the top ten poultry producers – which control 73 percent of that market. After moving into the remainder of the swine and poulty markets, OvaTech plans to sell to international feed distributors by 2006.
OvaTech Inc. is now five people. In addition to Kirschner, Cook and Johnson, Scott Schneider, formerly of Dean’s Eggs, is the chief operations officer, and UW researcher Ming-Der Yang is the chief scientific officer.
The company is very optimistic about its product’s promise for these markets, especially as it begins to replace the growth-promoting antibiotics. Since some of the antibiotics that farmers have been using for decades have harmful side effects on humans, Europe and many of America’s large food retailers such as McDonald’s and Burger King have begun to refuse meat that contains them.
“OvaTech is in a unique position … in that it is has exclusive worldwide rights to its patented antibody technology,” Kirschner said. “There are other non-antibody growth and feed efficiency products in the marketplace but they are generally less effective or less cost-effective.”
The antibody aPLA2 produces about a 5 percent growth response in swine, and about an 8 percent growth response in poultry. With several hundred million of each of these animals in the United States alone, this percentage increase in livestock means a considerable increase in livestock companies’ profitability.
“We’re confident that you’ll never be able to replace this product,” Cook said.