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Plan to use tobacco to grow vaccines wins $15,000

May 21, 2010

Editor's note: A full-length video of the event is online.

A new venture that could save thousands of lives and millions of dollars by accelerating development and production of animal and human vaccines won the $15,000 grand prize Thursday in the 10th annual Big Bang! Business Plan Competition organized by MBA students of the UC Davis Graduate School of Management.

The process conceived by a group of UC Davis students substitutes tobacco plants for conventional manufacturing methods that rely on chicken eggs and cell culture, to cut development time for new vaccines from six months to as little as six weeks, according to Lucas Arzola, a doctoral candidate in chemical engineering who headed the winning team, Inserogen.

The Inserogen plan noted that the U.S. government spent $1.3 billion to develop an H1N1 vaccine, but could deliver only 30 million of 160 million promised doses by last summer. With limited supplies of the vaccine, 86 million Americans were infected with the flu virus and, of those, 17,000 died.

The Inserogen team and the evening’s “People’s Choice” winner, a blueprint for a new infant diagnostics test developed by a team known as Pedianostics, were invited to compete in the $250,000 DFJ Cisco International Business Plan competition, which will pit the UC Davis teams against winners of similar contests at other top West Coast business schools.

A third UC Davis team, Nomad Technologies, finished second with a UC Davis-patented nanotechnology-based design that could increase computer hard drive capacity by more than 800 percent. The team, four Bay Area Working Professional MBA students from the management school’s San Ramon campus, won $5,000. Pedianostics won $3,000 for the People’s Choice Award, which is decided by a vote of the event’s audience.

Sacramento venture capitalist Roger Akers, one of those who supported the launch of Big Bang! as a student-run competition in 2000, said it has evolved dramatically over the past decade. It drew more than 40 entries this year.

“Every year we’ve seen an incremental growth in the quality of the plans and the quality of the teams that come together,” said Akers, one of the contest’s judges. “Now the organization has its own brand and it own identity. The prize money has quadrupled. The quality of the business plans from all the interdisciplinary areas now are fundable.”

Organized and run since its inception by UC Davis MBA students, the competition is designed to inspire and reward innovation and entrepreneurship. Previous winners and finalists have gone on to form companies such as VinPerfect, Bloo Solar, SialoGen, Ultra V and Visual Calc.

“A solid business plan competition is really at the heart of a world-class business school,” said Vlad Loscutoff, a first-year MBA student who chaired this year’s Big Bang! organizing committee. “Entrepreneurship embraces many of the core values that are part of earning an MBA – motivation, teamwork, being a self-starter, ethics and morals.”

This year’s winners were announced on campus Thursday night, following presentations of the five finalists’ plans. The event drew a crowd of nearly 300 people to the UC Davis Conference Center.

Arzola, the leader of Inserogen, said Big Bang! workshops and mentoring helped the team build a network and business plan around a nascent idea.

“It all starts with the research labs at Davis,” said Arzola, who earned a bachelor’s degree in industrial biotechnology at the University of Puerto Rico, Mayaguez. “UC Davis is a great place to start our company because of the great expertise available in agriculture, engineering, veterinary health and medicine.”

“We got help from so many people, from lab mates, from my teammates, from judges and mentors … It’s really amazing how the idea evolved,” Arzola said.

Inserogen, whose name is derived from Latin and means to plant a gene, would use tobacco leaves as “biofactories” for the rapid production of vaccines and other biopharmaceuticals.

Conventional methods of vaccine production used by big manufacturers rely on chicken-egg or cell-culture technology. Both methods require long development times, and have a very high cost. Cell culture in particular requires expensive facilities containing specialized equipment, such as large stainless steel bioreactors.

“Our technology aims to replace the upstream part of these biotech facilities with leaves from tobacco plants that only require sunlight, water, and soil to grow,” Arzola explained. “We are able to harness a plant's natural ability to produce proteins, and we are able to make them produce our vaccine of interest within their leaves.”

This year, for the first time, Big Bang! organizers welcomed top teams from the Sacramento State College of Business Administration and the Sacramento Entrepreneurship Academy to vie for $33,000 in total prize money awarded to finalists and winners of Big Bang!

A companion competition, known as Little Bang! and aimed largely at UC Davis science and engineering students, was reworked and incorporated into Big Bang! as a business pitch competition.

The contest began more than seven months ago in mid-October. The changes, inspired by the 10th anniversary of Big Bang! and the business school’s recent move into the new Gallagher Hall on the UC Davis campus, were designed to expand the competition’s reach into the greater Sacramento business community as well as the campus’s science and engineering ranks.

“It brings together people from the business community, from the financial investment community, technologists, scientists and engineers and our MBA students,” said Steven Currall, dean of the Graduate School of Management. “It’s really a terrific mix of talent and human capital.”

With this year’s prizes, Big Bang! has awarded more than $190,000 to 30 promising student projects. In the process, it has become one of the best known business-plan competitions on the West Coast.
Some of Northern California’s largest employers, venture capitalists and law firms provide the prize money, coaching and volunteer judges.

About the UC Davis Graduate School of Management
Established in 1981, the UC Davis Graduate School of Management provides management education to 120 full-time MBA and more than 450 Working Professional MBA students on the UC Davis campus, in Sacramento and the San Francisco Bay Area. For 15 consecutive years, U.S. News & World Report has ranked UC Davis among the top 10 percent of MBA programs in the nation. Only 35 business schools share this track record. The Financial Times, The Economist and the Aspen Institute's Center for Business Education rank the UC Davis MBA program among the best in the world. http://www.gsm.ucdavis.edu

About UC Davis
For more than 100 years, UC Davis has engaged in teaching, research and public service that matter to California and transform the world. Located close to the state capital, UC Davis has 32,000 students, an annual research budget that exceeds $600 million, a comprehensive health system and 13 specialized research centers. The university offers interdisciplinary graduate study and more than 100 undergraduate majors in four colleges — Agricultural and Environmental Sciences, Biological Sciences, Engineering, and Letters and Science. It also houses six professional schools — Education, Law, Management, Medicine, Veterinary Medicine and the Betty Irene Moore School of Nursing.

For more information, visit http://bigbang.gsm.ucdavis.edu

 

Media contact(s):

  • Tim Akin, Graduate School of Management, (530) 752-7362, tmakin@ucdavis.edu
  • News Service, (530) 752-1930

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