NEW GRAD INNOVATORS FOR SUMMER 2020
Healthy Products, Healthy Processes
Starting this fall, Britta Heiss and Morgan Matson will join TechAccel and Better Ventures respectively to gain first-hand experience on what it takes to develop and de-risk their own potential innovations in animal health and sustainable fuels. From a competitive pool of postdoctoral and senior PhD candidates in wide-ranging disciplines, our summer 2020 cohort will be joining national venture capital partners in Missouri and California to explore innovation and investment potential across food, ag and health. IIFH offers multiple fellowship opportunities each year, with the next applications due in fall 2020 (remote option available): https://foodaghealth.solutions
Building Baby Health through Gut Health
Britta Heiss has always had a passion for bacteria. Her undergraduate and graduate studies in microbiology exposed her to pivotal and inspiring research on animal health and food science applications.
This is a perfect complement to the focus areas at her host venture capital group, TechAccel, who partner with plant and animal health industry leaders to identify technology and investment opportunities.
Going with her Gut
At UC Davis, Heiss’ research with Dr. David Mills focuses on development of the infant gastrointestinal microbiome, in particular the colonization of Bifidobacterium species. In breastfed newborns, human milk oligosaccharides (HMOs) contribute to beneficial growth of the bacteria and encourage complementary microbiota.
More recently, a profitable industry has emerged from HMO production for infant formulas and as gut health bioactives. Heiss has designed an animal model to better understand how Bifidobacterium strains digest HMOs in situ and can influence baby health.
“We don’t just want to model bacterial interactions, we want to model human and microbial community interactions”
– Britta Heiss, IIFH Innovator Fellow
Dr. Mills believes her work could form the basis of a revolutionary new biotherapeutic platform. She is establishing a portfolio of tools to understand the relationship between colonization, nutrient accessibility, and host health outcomes. With further development, her work can “set the stage for a tremendous leap forward in our understanding of the ecological drivers of early life colonization,” he says.
“As a graduate student she has excelled in her research, developing the first animal model to examine how prebiotic milk oligosaccharides dramatically enrich very specific bifidobacterial strains”
– Dr. Mills, UC Davis Food Science & Technology Professor
Bringing Worlds Together
Heiss also brings an entrepreneurial perspective to the fellowship from her participation in the immersive food and agriculture industry courses at UC Davis’ Graduate School of Management. Heiss’ previous community work as a co-organizer of the STEM for Girls event at UC Davis also introduced students from low‐income regions in Sacramento and Woodland to the intersection of disciplinary worlds.
“This kind of STEM outreach is a passion of Britta’s,” confirms Dr. Mills. As an IIFH Innovator Fellow with industry mentor guidance, she hopes to inspire the next generation and advance new technologies to address animal health-related questions alongside TechAccel and their Covenant Animal Health Partners.
Even with COVID-19 slowing down lab and campus activities, Britta continues her work as a scientist through analysis of existing data, preparing manuscripts for publication, and applying for grants to continue her work.
Following her TechAccel engagement, Britta will continue her studies at UC Davis, where she hopes to further develop models and tools to help other scientists understand human and animal health.
TechAccel LLC was founded in 2014 as a first-of-its-kind technology and venture development organization in the agriculture, animal health & nutrition, and food technology sectors.
TechAccel sources, invests in and acquires early-stage innovations. Through collaborations with dozens of universities and research institutions, TechAccel conducts science advancement and de-risking research and development to ready technologies for commercialization. TechAccel is based in the greater Kansas City area and has offices in St. Louis at the Danforth Plant Science Center.
Fueling the Next Generation
Having a lifelong fascination with the power of nature’s renewable processes, concentrating on possible energy generation from biological hosts, Morgan Matson is perfectly suited to join the sustainability focus of Better Ventures as an IIFH Innovator Fellow.
Matson is a chemistry PhD student at UC Davis, working on engineering the metabolism of E. coli to produce biofuels and other valuable chemicals with Dr. Shota Atsumi.
Working with Nature to Creatively Unlock Renewable Resources
Matson explains the field attracted her because of the possibility to make a difference. “I felt like I was making an immediate product,” she says. Matson enjoys being able to directly influence processes that generate biofuels, pharmaceuticals, bioplastics, and other products for industry.
She describes her work as a parallel to agriculture, where the cattle sector might provide multiple products from one source (leather, meat, cheese, etc.), her work provides a microbial platform for generating multiple products. Her development of a hybrid electro-biochemical production system is an innovative and promising approach for producing valuable chemicals from atmospheric CO2 and renewable electricity.
“We are engineering a microbial host so that it can produce a high-value chemical product…that is sustainable, renewable and as much as possible, independent of petroleum”
– Morgan Matson, IIFH Innovator Fellow
Using CO2 as a feedstock could potentially mitigate climate change, while providing long term resource security. In addition, this system could accelerate the growth of the renewable energy sector by providing new avenues for its application.
The task is to engineer an efficient means of converting CO2 into value-added products. “We’re metabolic engineering experts,” Matson explains, “but the real challenge is integrating a very energetic and organic system to get it to work.”
Taking Science to the Next Level
Beyond scientific insights, Matson also dedicates herself to outreach and enrichment. Leveraging the entrepreneurial opportunities on campus, Matson was part of the Leaders for the Future program and the Entrepreneurship Academy at the UC Davis Institute for Innovation and Entrepreneurship. Her presentation skills were also tested with a three-minute research pitch as a finalist in the UC‐wide Grad Slam competition.
“The UC Entrepreneurship Academy helped her gain the knowledge and networks needed to develop the commercial potential of her research”
– Dr. Shota Atsumi, UC Davis Chemistry Professor
Translating these learnings to her local community, Matson supports the Teen Biotech Challenge and Expanding Your Horizons events through the UC Davis Biotechnology Program to encourage the next generation of STEM learners. Exploring science communication through the UC Davis Chemistry Educational Outreach Committee is another of her hobbies, as well as through movies as part of UC Davis SCInema.
The IIFH Innovator Fellowship with Better Ventures provides Matson with the opportunity to explore and advance new technologies that address the future of sustainability in accordance with the UN Sustainable Development Goals. Afterward, Matson has one more year at UC Davis, where she hopes to continue developing and working on game‐changing solutions to fuel the future of sustainable products.
About Better Ventures:
Better Ventures is an Oakland venture capital firm that provides funding and support to companies creating scalable solutions to some of the world’s biggest challenges, including re-tooling for a sustainable economy, tackling data-driven health care, and enabling an adaptive workforce. They invest in software, data science, and life sciences startups to deliver profitably and progressively toward the UN Sustainable Development Goals. Better Ventures believes that mission-driven companies will outperform the market. They back pre-seed stage startups and founders who leverage breakthrough innovations in science and technology to build a more sustainable and equitable economy in which both people and planet thrive.
Congratulations to our summer fellows Britta Heiss and Morgan Matson, commencing their venture capital placement! Thank you to applicants for our fall fellowship opportunity that just closed, and be sure to check out our spring 2021 opportunity opening shortly (multiple and repeat applications encouraged): https://foodaghealth.solutions