After two years of attending the Worthington Bio Conference, I am convinced it is one of the most enjoyable experiences of my post-teaching career. There are such interesting presentations at this conference and it is truly amazing that such a small town can make such a huge impact on the local economy. Here are some of the highlights of this year’s conference.
Matt Gardner, Founder and CEO of the California Technology Council and former President and Chief Executive of BayBio, was the Lunch Keynote speaker. He spoke about the innovative paths whereby people can get an unconventional education and be successful, such as via Coursera and other Massive Open Online Courses (MOOC). He summarized several new paradigms that technology entrepreneurs are using to learn how to create start-ups that, hopefully, are successful. He challenged us to consider what the future of higher education will be like in 20 years with MOOCs, crowd funding, IGEM and free-lancing by non-degreed, intelligent entrepreneurs. Mind-blowing for conventional educators.
Bio-Link’s own Luanne Wolfgram gave an excellent presentation on the unique collaboration between Johnson County (Kansas) Community College, a staffing agency and Ceva Animal Health, which makes custom vaccines for poultry. Luanne teaches an extremely successful 40 hour quality assurance program several times each year to new employees of Ceva. It was a very appropriate presentation for the audience of Worthington, which may make use of such a model to train their needed scientific workforce.
Dan Hodgson, Managing Director of Linn Grove Growth Funds gave an interesting and thought provoking talk about some current remedies for problems facing farmers. Unfortunately, many high tech solutions are not always successful because of business problems. He maintains that big companies do not innovate well, but they DO distribute well. The problem, he pointed out, is that the new technology many times does not get to market because the retailers of the old technology disrupt it. He gave many examples of inventions to improve farming that have low rates of adoption. One is the use of spectral soil analysis linked to weather patterns to reduce crop loss from fungal infestations. Potato crops must be sprayed many times during the growing season; thus, this 100% reliable spectral analysis can save the potato farmer both time and money. Unfortunately, when the small spectral soil analysis instrument that attaches to the tractor is introduced to the retailer, he will not sell it because he makes more money from the sale of the fungicide. It was quite eye-opening to hear some of the problems that must be overcome in order to get better farming technologies into the field.
Shannon Schlecht is the Executive Director of Agricultural Utilization Research Institute (AURI). The AURI works with both clients and initiatives in bio-based products, bi-products, food and renewable energy and helps them succeed. Dave Roser is one of their success stories having started both Garden Fresh Farms and MNPHARM. Dave gave an amazing presentation about these two AURI supported ventures. Garden Fresh is a company that invented a way to grow high value, quick-to-spoil plants (think herbs and lettuce) hydroponically in a rotating cylinder. This enterprise produces twice the greens with half the energy of conventional hydroponics. These hydroponic facilities are located next to ethanol plants which have abundant carbon dioxide waste that is pumped into the hydroponics buildings – increased photosynthesis, faster growth. They also build these hydroponic production sites near the big distribution points so that the produce gets from production to retail in very little time – fresh, clean, and ready to use by the consumer. They ARE making money.
Dave Roser’s other company, MNPHARM is molecular farming – making plant based medicines that are designed specifically for individual patient needs. Proteins and vaccines are made in a relatively short time by injecting human tissue samples, such as from a cancerous biopsy, into plants such as tobacco. The plant reacts by producing compounds to destroy the cancer cells and before the plant can wilt and die these compounds are extracted and then injected into the cancer patient. The Mayo Clinic is working with MNPHARM, which has a facility next to the Clinic. A patient comes for a biopsy, stays in Rochester Minnesota for a week while the injected plants make their anti-cancer compounds and gets injected with the compounds before going home. Now that is truly molecular medicine – happening right here in this entrepreneurial country of ours. Minnesota should be, and is, proud.
As for me, I plan to go to Worthington again next year. It’s too good to pass up, folks. Besides, I want to see the Middle School Biotech Club projects again. I also want to see if the Worthington Regional Economic Development Board is successful in building that research lab they are considering for their Bio Business Park. I’m betting a lot of Bio-Link folks would happily help with the planning.