Turning a great scientific discovery into a viable commercial product isn’t a simple process. Academic experts typically lack the business experience needed to bring research breakthroughs to market. Closing that gap is what UNCW’s CREST Research Park is designed to do.
CREST is a marine science-based program hosted by the University of North Carolina Wilmington that focuses on research and development. The emphasis on “development” means it not only creates new technologies, but also brings them to commercial maturity as products and then helps to market them. The name stands for “Campus for Research Entrepreneurship Service and Teaching.”
CREST Research Park’s goal is to create collaborative relationships with new companies on the cutting edge of marine biotechnology.
One of those companies is SeaTox Research. Founded and managed by a UNCW post-doctoral graduate, Dr. Jennifer McCall, SeaTox is working both to improve safety and to reduce costs for the seafood industry.
SeaTox is developing a faster and more efficient toxicity test for fish and shellfish. The test would be used by academic researchers and government monitoring agencies. These regulators, both state and federal, control fishing areas. One of their important duties is to close fisheries when toxicity from unusual biological events is too high. An example is the so-called “red tide” algae outbreaks along the Atlantic coast and in the Gulf of Mexico. Regulatory agencies reopen the waters for harvesting when tests show toxins have returned to acceptable levels. Getting this right is important for the safety of both consumers and seafood workers, and for fishermen’s livelihoods.
The problem McCall is addressing is that, until now, these tests have been time-consuming and expensive. That in turn has meant, for example, that shellfish waters may remain closed too long after an event like an algae bloom. That directly harms the fishery.
“For marine toxins that contaminate fish and shellfish and cause poisonings,” McCall said, “we need rapid, inexpensive alternatives.”
She created SeaTox after seeing the need to improve the lengthy process of measuring marine toxicity levels after algae blooms. Sometimes it takes days to get test results. During that wait, fishermen are left in limbo, facing two equally unpalatable choices.
If they go back to work too soon, rather than waiting for test results, they might harvest toxic fish and shellfish, endangering consumers and incurring potential legal liability. Alternatively, a fishery might remain closed for many days after the danger was gone, keeping people out of work, which a faster test would make unnecessary.
By streamlining the testing process, McCall’s test would cut the time required to determine if waters are safe – or not. That will reduce the level of uncertainty for both regulators and the industry. An agency like North Carolina’s Division of Marine Fisheries carries the heavy burden of deciding when a toxic algae bloom requires closing a fishery. Equally heavy is the burden of when to reopen the fishery without endangering public health.
The industry’s current standard for seafood toxicity depends on a time-consuming radioactive test method. SeaTox’s seafood safety test is faster and more efficient because it dispenses with radioactive materials, which are themselves difficult and potentially hazardous to manage. Instead, McCall developed a test using fluorescent tagging to identify the level at which toxins are bound to biological receptors.
Perfecting the method, however, was only a first step. Then came the need to make McCall’s scientific breakthrough into a useful product. A post-doc scientist often isn’t the best business person, she acknowledged. “I realized how little I knew about business, like how to get the best out of individuals,” she said. In addition to her post-doctorate marine biotechnology work, McCall has also participated in a UNCW program to help improve her business skills by earning an MBA.
She said her company has benefitted from its relationship with the university and the CREST Research Park. “It’s done a great job of fostering business relationships to bring our research into a viable product,” she said. Among the collaborative services is assistance in securing grants.
SeaTox received a $50,000 state grant in December 2013. It also received a Small Business Innovation Research startup grant of $224,000 from the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences.
UNCW CREST Research Park is a frontrunner in marine biotech research and development. Researchers are exploring the potential of natural products derived from the sea to treat or cure human diseases and meet other important needs.
Discover why rising biotechnology and life sciences groups from all over the country are moving to UNCW CREST Research Park. UNCW CREST Research Park offers top-notch commercial laboratories available for lease at affordable rates, flexible terms, and innovative product development opportunities that are unmatched by any other park. Connect with CREST at [email protected] today.
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