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Gut microbiome close-in

Research innovation and entrepreneurship combine to address critical global challenges

By Srila Nayak

Microbiologist Maude David's startup, Microbiome Engineering, analyzes environmental and human ecosystems and develops innovative technology for sensing the microbiome world.

The College of Science is at the heart of a flourishing new ecosystem of entrepreneurship and high-impact scientific and technological innovations. Among other breakthroughs, these include: high-performance thin-film technology to revolutionize electronics and energy; genetic studies of the human microbiome for better treatment of autism spectrum disorder; and the engineering of new proteins for therapeutic applications.

These path-breaking innovations from the College of Science at Oregon State University hold answers to critical problems in the environment, energy and healthcare.

Research innovations from the College have garnered global recognition and record-breaking competitive federal and industry research funds. In 2020-2021, the College’s research awards rose to $24.4M, a 55% increase over the average of the previous three years and one of the highest award levels ever. The previous year’s total was $15.82 million.

Seed funding from the College has helped support highly ambitious and expansive projects, making it possible for our scientists to delve into fundamental research discoveries that can be ramped up to revolutionary applications. Between 2019 and 2021, the College’s Science Research and Innovation Seed Program (SciRIS) provided $763K in seed funding to scientists leading research projects in both basic and applied science and mathematics with the potential to produce practical solutions for industry, people and the planet.

“OSU science leadership has literally reached across the globe. Our scientists achieved award-winning success even in the midst of pandemic challenges,” said Roy Haggerty, Dean of the College of Science. “They produced knowledge, generated innovations and inspired national policy to promote economic, social, health, cultural and environmental progress for the people of Oregon and beyond.”

Advancing clean energy alternatives

A $1.1 million award from the Department of Energy’s (DOE) Small Business Innovation Research will help University Distinguished Chemistry Professor Douglas Keszler ’s company nexTC Corporation pioneer innovations for a clean energy future. The funds will enable nexTC to develop new technologies to improve solar module performance and lower materials cost.

The awards are administered by DOE’s Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) and Small Business Technology Transfer programs, which were established to encourage diverse communities to participate in technological innovation, as well as create a bridge between DOE-supported science breakthroughs and viable products and services for the commercial market.

Keszler, a renowned materials chemist and a leading figure in the field of new generation semiconductor and solar energy devices, is known for spearheading several companies at Oregon State and in Corvallis that are regarded as nationally important centers of chemical innovation. Keszler is the founder of nexTC and serves as its science advisor.

The corporation, led by CEO Cory Perkins, a former postdoctoral scientist in Keszler’s lab, has carved a niche for itself by innovating in the area of high-performance, low-cost state-of-the-art thin film manufacturing processes that enhance energy conversion and energy efficiency. NexTC is noted for inventing several thin-film technologies for environmentally friendly electronics and energy efficient products such as smart windows.

Associate Professor of Physics Matt Graham and colleagues received the College of Science Industry Partnership Award to support their project converting waste heat to electricity. This new award from the College’s seed funding provides critical resources for projects that take a new direction, utilize a new technology or are in the “proof-of-concept” phase.

This project will engineer a prototype device that converts waste heat to clean energy, in partnership with Peter Orem of ThermaWatts LLC, Renton, WA. The goal is to achieve a cost-performance level that allows the device to be viable for part of the potential power supply market, enhancing the accessibility of sustainable energy. ;

Taking microbiome research to new heights

Our scientists are spurring societal, environmental and economic impact with the support of Oregon State’s innovation and entrepreneurial centers such as the Oregon State University Advantage Accelerator. Among the several powerful startup concepts that have recently emerged from Oregon State is Microbiome Engineering (previously called Enoveo USA), which is redefining the study of environmental and human health through the lens of the microbiome resulting in the development of innovative technologies that address several challenging problems in environmental and human ecosystems.

The startup was founded by Maude David, an OSU assistant professor of microbiology, whose research focuses on the gut-brain axis and the impact of gut microbes on behavior, specifically in autism spectrum disorder (ASD) and anxiety.

With substantial momentum gained from a 2019 SBIR phase II $1.94 million grant, David and her team are exploring potential therapeutics for ASD by identifying differentiating factors within the microbiome of neurotypical children and those with ASD.

Endeavoring to carry David’s research-based innovation to the market, Microbiome Engineering is developing a gut brain chip that serves as a screening tool to rapidly assess the impact of gut microbiota metabolites on issues such as autism, depression and cognition.

Expanding the genetic code to engineer new therapeutics

A transformative project aims to bridge the gap between innovative biomedical research and the biotech industry. Professor of Biochemistry and Biophysics Ryan Mehl received two grants totaling $1.6M from a biopharmaceutical company partner for projects on the engineering of antibodies as therapeutics using genetic code expansion.

Mehl and collaborators received initial support from SciRIS Stage 2 seed funding that helped them develop the base technology for the engineering of nanobodies as diagnostic agents. Mehl and postdoctoral scientists in his lab will work directly with the partner's team on their projects to rapidly accelerate the project and achieve vital scientific milestones.

Mehl is also director of GCE4All, the world’s first Genetic Code Expansion (GCE) center, funded by the NIH at Oregon State at $5.6M. This newly-established center will accommodate burgeoning industry interest in GCE technology and catalyze advances to fabricate new nanomaterials and synthesize proteins with promising therapeutic functionalities.

“This is a new adventure for our lab working with Big Pharma. Another eye-opening change for us will be the pace of this project and important connections for future students. We expect this project will lead to valuable career options for our undergrads, grads and postdocs,” said Mehl.

Mehl’s collaboration with industry was supported by OSU Advantage programs, which has an impressive track record of driving cutting-edge research innovations toward commercialization and widespread societal utility and impact.