UMBC professor to make scratch growing chickens
- Sarah Gantz
- Reporter- Baltimore Business Journal
A University of Maryland, Baltimore County professor thinks he has a better way to grow chickens and he’s ready to take it to the coop.
Mark Marten, a chemical and biochemical engineering professor at UMBC, is using his background in fermentation to develop a new way to raise chickens that is safer and less expensive. What’s more the technology, which entails attempting to alter how microorganisms in animals interact, could be a gateway to addressing other health conditions, such as obesity.
“I grow fungus. Nobody cares about fungus, that’s gross,” Marten said. “Using fungi for a great benefit — that’s kind of a cool thing.”
Marten’s company, MycoInnovation, is developing an additive for chicken feed that could be used to make chickens grow without antibiotics.
In a matter of months, Marten has grown MycoInnovation from an idea to a grant-funded company that is in the process of inking a deal with the U.S. Department of Agriculture to test his technology. Marten launched the company in December after participating in a National Science Foundation grant program, Innovation Corps, which targets university faculty to develop companies based on their research.
In March, the company received $100,000 from the Maryland Innovation Initiative, a state program that supports businesses started out of university research, and is hoping to land additional funding through a National Science Foundation grant. The partnership with the USDA would take Marten’s research out of his lab at UMBC and into the chicken coop, where he could start testing whether his methods for fattening up chickens without the harmful side effects of antibiotics is a winner.
Antibiotics are commonly used in chicken feed because they can cause chickens to get bigger while consuming less food. But the antibiotics can cause bacteria strains that are harmful to humans. Marten wants to use a fermentation process to produce large quantities of peptides, or small proteins, that could have the same chicken-growing effect without the bacteria problems.
The type of progress experienced by MycroInnovation usually takes two or three years for a life science company, said David Fink, director of entrepreneurial services at bwtech@UMBC Research and Technology Park and an advisor to MycoInnovation. Fink attributed MycoInnovation’s fast-paced growth to Marten’s willingness to adjust his idea to fit market needs. Fink said he often finds that scientists do not want to compromise their research in the interest of making a company that is more in line with a demand.
“That’s the biggest hurdle they need to overcome,” Fink said. “If they’re going to build a business they need a business model that can pay for itself.”
Marten’s original idea was to create an alternative to antibiotics that would improve animal health, Fink said. But when he learned the purpose of the antibiotics was to make them grow bigger — not to keep them healthy — he changed direction to come up with an alternative that would stimulate growth.
“You have to be able to move with what you discover, to change your project so it fits into the needs of what people really want,” Fink said.
Agriculture technology is still a small sector of the bioscience industry. Agriculture feedstock and chemicals made up just 5 percent of the industry workforce in 2010 and had little growth between 2001 and 2010, according to a 2012 report by the Biotechnology Industry Organization and Battelle.
The global agriculture biotechnology industry was expected to reach a value of $12 billion by 2015, according to a Janary 2013 report by Transparency Market Research.
But public interest in the field is growing, as farmers look for ways to grow food while saving money and new uses for the technology come to light. For example, the method Marten thinks he can manipulate microbes to make chickens gain weight could boost research on human weight loss.
“The micro biome is inside everything — you and me and chickens,” Marten said. “There are literally thousands and thousands of different species of microbes that help us digest food, keep us healthy, but we don’t understand all there is.”