Interview: Dr. Chavonda Jacobs-Young, Administrator of the Agricultural Research Service, and Mojdeh Bahar, Assistant Administrator for Technology Transfer

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Dr. Chavonda Jacobs-Young has served as administrator of the Agricultural Research Service (ARS), the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s chief scientific in-house research agency, since February 2014.

Previously, Jacobs-Young had served as ARS Associate Administrator for National Programs, where she led the Office of National Programs, which manages the research objectives of the agency, and the Office of International Research Programs, which is responsible for ARS’ liaison with its international partners. Prior to moving into her roles at ARS, Jacobs-Young served as the director of the Office of the Chief Scientist at USDA, where she was responsible for facilitating the coordination of scientific leadership across the department to ensure that research supported by, and scientific advice provided to, the department and external stakeholders were held to the highest standards of intellectual rigor and scientific integrity. She also served as the acting director for USDA’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture. Jacobs-Young has also served as a senior policy analyst for agriculture in the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, where she supported the president’s science adviser and others within the Executive Office of the President on a variety of agricultural scientific activities and worked across the federal government to improve interagency cooperation and collaboration on high-priority scientific issues.

Jacobs-Young is a native of Georgia. She holds Master of Science and doctoral degrees in wood and paper science and a Bachelor of Science degree in pulp and paper science and technology from North Carolina State University. She also is a graduate of American University’s Executive Leadership in Public Policy Implementation Program.

Mojdeh Bahar serves as the assistant administrator for technology transfer at ARS. She has broad responsibility for managing the intellectual property that evolves from the research program of the agency and serves as a resource for management of intellectual property and technology transfer across the USDA. She leads ARS’s interactions with government agencies, industries, commodity groups, and universities on matters dealing with intellectual property and technology transfer. Previously, Bahar served as the chief of the cancer branch at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) Office of Technology Transfer, where she led a team responsible for marketing, patenting, and licensing NIH and U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) inventions in the areas of cancer, gene therapy, and biological response modifiers. Prior to that, Bahar was an examiner with the United States Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO). A patent attorney registered to practice before the USPTO, the State of Maryland, the United States District Court for the District of Maryland, and the United States Court of Appeals for Federal Circuit, Bahar is also a Certified Licensing Professional (CLP).

Bahar has spoken nationally and internationally on a wide spectrum of topics ranging from restriction practice, double patenting, and claim drafting to technology transfer and commercialization, business development, and licensing, and she is the recipient of numerous professional awards, among them an NIH Director’s Award and three Excellence in Technology Transfer Awards. She is a graduate of the University of Maryland School of Law. She also received a Master of Arts degree from New York University and a Bachelor of Science degree with honors in chemistry and french from Dickinson College.

Jacobs-Young and Bahar took time to speak with U.S. Agriculture Outlook in January 2017 about the research ARS conducts to tackle pressing issues in agriculture and how they work to take their findings “beyond the laboratory bench” to make a difference in people’s lives.

 

U.S. Agriculture Outlook: ARS’s mission statement reads in part that ARS conducts research to develop and transfer solutions to agricultural problems of high national priority. What kinds of research does ARS conduct and what are those agricultural problems that you’re looking to address?

Dr. Chavonda Jacobs-Young: Thank you for asking. We’re fortunate that our mission and our goals are to transfer the solutions. In ARS, we really pride ourselves on going beyond the laboratory bench and making sure that our discoveries and our innovations are put into the hands of the people who need them, whether they are ag producers or consumers of agricultural goods. And as you most likely know, we work a lot with our international colleagues as we take on these national and international challenges that we face in agriculture. In ARS, we have a very broad scope with our 8,000 employees and 2,000 scientists. We are the largest intramural scientific agency for the Department of Agriculture. And as such, we have a critical role in ensuring that a lot of the long-term research is in place, and that includes long-term infrastructure.

We’re addressing issues like food security. A lot of times people hear food security and they think about international issues. And certainly there is a huge, huge role for food security efforts internationally. But there are also issues of food security right here in the United States of America. How do we help the production of agricultural products, plants and animals, and then how do we help protect those products once they are being grown by dealing with disease management, pest management, and certainly addressing the issues that are concerned with weather-related variability, climate change, and other weather instances? We do research on food safety, which each year we know that there are a number of illnesses still related to food safety. There is much work to be done in that area. We really do bring our workforce to bear on looking at how do we minimize food safety incidences. And that includes looking at alternatives to antibiotics that includes a lot of work on looking at alternatives in production management with animals – how do we reduce enteric diseases and pathogens through using phytochemicals, for example.

In ARS, we really pride ourselves on going beyond the laboratory bench and making sure that our discoveries and our innovations are put into the hands of the people who need them, whether they are ag producers or consumers of agricultural goods.              – Dr. Chavonda Jacobs-Young

We have a huge role in helping to identify the best science for evidence-based decisions around diet and nutrition. We have six nutrition centers across the country. We deal with nutrition issues from birth. And more recently, it’s been more and more prevalent in how do we help our baby boomers and our aging population make healthy choices for their lifestyles? We’re really happy about the work that we do in collecting data around nutrition: what people eat, the caloric intake, what should be the caloric intake, and looking at some of the products that are available on the market. We’ve been very involved in the bio-based economy – producing products from renewable resources, helping with some of our energy needs in this country by helping to identify plants and products that can help create economic attractiveness about energy production. We’re very happy to be involved in that area, [as well as with] our natural resources – helping the country be very good stewards of our natural resources. We’ve been doing a lot of work around environmental and natural resources. I could go on. We’re doing a lot.

It sounds like it. It runs the gamut.

Jacobs-Young: It runs the gamut. It’s a fairly large agency – 90 locations, four locations overseas. So if it’s a high priority in agriculture, there is a high probability that we’re doing some research on that area.

How do you go about translating your research findings in all these different areas into practical use outside the lab? How does that process work?

Jacobs-Young: [With] each one of our programs in ARS, we have a five-year process. And that process starts with stakeholder involvement. So we maintain close, close relationships with our stakeholders. When we start our programs, we start with their highest priorities and their highest needs in mind. We know that the projects that we’re working with are ones that are critically important to producers and to consumers. That helps. We know we’re working on something where there is a challenge and we need a solution. Just starting a project that way makes [for] a higher probability for transfer. And then what Mojdeh and her team have been doing in the Office of Technology Transfer [OTT] within ARS, which has been just so helpful for us over the last couple of years, is ensuring that our scientists have their transfer mechanisms or their transfer strategies in mind when they start the projects. In the past, it would be an afterthought. And now they start with, in mind, “How am I going to disseminate this information?”

Chavonda Jacobs Young web

Dr. Chavonda Jacobs-Young. Credit: Photo courtesy of the USDA Agricultural Research Service

In ARS, our dissemination of information doesn’t always include a patent or some sort of license. I’ll let Mojdeh talk a little bit more about when those specific mechanisms are needed. But often, it could be a publication. It could be an extension workshop – that information could be transferred through some sort of extension effort. Our idea is we want it to be disseminated. The mechanism we use to disseminate it is one that depends on the circumstances. But we have basic research in ARS and we have applied research in ARS. That basic research feeds into our application. I’ll use dairy cows for example. We did a lot of genetic evaluation of dairy cows, and collected large amounts of genomic information through genetic research. We were able to take that information and create tools that have been transferred to the dairy cow industry so that they could do their own genetic evaluations in order to be able to breed better dairy cows. And that has resulted in a significant increase in the milk produced in the United States and a reduction in the number of cows needed to produce the amount of milk that we consume – if you can imagine, also some sort of a minimization or a mitigation of the environmental footprint of using dairy cows. That’s just an example. I can let Mojdeh tell you just a little bit more about how we identify partners and how we’ve been training our scientists.

Mojdeh Bahar: Thank you, Dr. Jacobs-Young. I think one of the important points for us is that we have certain principles, if you will, for our partnerships in that we want to identify and solve agricultural problems in a collaborative manner. And that’s where the stakeholder and the listening sessions come into play. We also want to leverage resources and synergize outcomes. And what is important for us is efficient and appropriate adoption of ARS’s research outcomes and making sure that we can somehow help accelerate the pace of taking agricultural innovations from lab to market. In order for us to be able to do all of that, the earlier technology transfer gets on the scene in the research cycle, the more helpful we can be to our scientists in thinking about their end goal, thinking about what is the widget that is going to go in a box, or what is the publication that will inform the consumer, or what is the Field Day that will inform the farmer on how to better do certain things.

So technology transfer, while defined very broadly, basically for us technology transfer means adoption of our research outcomes in whatever form that takes. And as Dr. Jacobs-Young mentioned, it is not always through a license or a patent. We use patents, basically – we use intellectual property rights – as a mechanism to attract commercial partners. So if we can put something in the hands of the consumer without having to attract a commercial partner, then we do that. If we can do something through publication, chances are we’ll go that route and disseminate the information as widely as we can through that route. Now, for example in the animal vaccine area, where it’s a long development cycle and lots of money and regulatory considerations, then chances are we would need a commercial partner to come to the table to make sure that our research outcomes are adopted. So the paradigm includes intellectual property rights as well as things like Field Days and publications.

So it’s not a one-size-fits-all approach. As Dr. Jacobs-Young mentioned [regarding] the breadth of our research, we do anything from pesticides to nutrition. So, for example, the pesticides are regulated by EPA [the Environmental Protection Agency]. So chances are you would need a patent to justify the cost of the regulatory filings and the long development cycle, whereas nutritional information, we have a nutrition database that is available freely online. So both of them disseminate the information, both of them result in the adoption of our research outcomes. But they use different paradigms to give access to the public to our research outcomes.

Is there a place for small businesses to take part in technology transfer?

Bahar: There is absolutely a place for small businesses. Just to give you some numbers to provide a framework, we have about 156 active licenses and 70 active collaborative research and development agreements with small businesses, which is approximately 45 percent of the active CRADAs [cooperative research and development agreements]. And 30 percent of the active licenses are with small businesses. In addition, we do things to enhance small business participation in agricultural innovation.

We have, for example, partnered with our sister agency, the National Institute for Food and Agriculture [NIFA], which is the granting arm of our department. And in 2014, we started a Small Business Innovation Research [SBIR] grant Technology Transfer program (SBIR-TT), which basically gives our CRADA partners or licensees a leg up when seeking funding from NIFA. And just in the last year, we helped 11 small businesses that were also our CRADA partners to write NIFA grants and to basically have their research plan reviewed by us. From that 11, nine won and received the funding, which is a much higher percentage than the average for our granting agency. We also educate the small business. For example, in the past year, we have had a webinar called “Partnership Pays: Building a Relationship with ARS to Enhance Your USDA SBIR Proposal” to disseminate that information and make sure we have more participation in it. There was another webinar on “How to Partner with ARS to Move Technologies Out of the Lab and into the Marketplace,” talking about our pilot plans and how small business can participate in that.

What do you find makes for the best kind of partnerships?

Bahar: That’s a great question. Dr. Jacobs-Young, should I take this?

Jacobs-Young: Let me just quickly say that one of the things that has been really encouraging for me is to see the interest in partnering that we’ve had. And that’s because of our outreach around technology transfer. I’ll let Mojdeh tell you a little bit more about what has led to our best successful partnerships, but I will just insert that it leverages our resources and all of us working together around our mission-related goals, like I shared with you earlier. It’s just they’re really, really important to our success.

Mojdeh Bahar web

Mojdeh Bahar. Credit: Photo courtesy of the USDA Agricultural Research Service

Bahar: I think, to be honest, like any partnership, you need four things to make a successful partnership. The first one is probably same or similar goals and time lines – you know, that we both want to solve the same agricultural problem. And that’s what our goal is, and we have the same or similar time line in wanting to achieve that goal. So I think that’s probably the first factor. The second one is clearly articulated expectations. And I think this is a pitch for technology transfer officers in that it’s important to put those expectations in writing. Even if they’re not put in writing, just talking about them and making sure that both partners, both the federal agency, in this case ARS, and the industry collaborator or the academic collaborator have the same articulated expectation. And I think, given that we are talking about a science environment, the third one that is important is flexibility, because science doesn’t always work with the same time lines and parameters that a scientist may hope. Last but not least, transparent, open, and timely communication so that everybody knows where you are in the research project and what the goals are.

Can you give a couple of examples of some major technology transfer successes that the public might not even realize originated with ARS research?

Jacobs-Young: Oh, absolutely. I will start and I’ll let Mojdeh chime in if she has more to add. One of the products that I like to share with a lot of our audiences is about the Apple Dippers. I am a fan of the Happy Meal® – it’s my go-to meal at the airport. And one of the things that’s enjoyable, not just for kids, which certainly it was designed to provide a more nutritious opportunity for children, but for all of us [is] to have an opportunity to have apples as a part of our fast-food meal – but apples that have the right mouthfeel. They feel crisp, they are tasty, and most importantly, they are still fresh. That technology was developed with one of our utilization centers in Wyndmoor, Pennsylvania, and working with one of our companies – we had a CRADA with a company. So they were able to help us enhance the delivery, the dissemination of that technology. So that’s one product.

Just two weeks ago, ARS lost one of our Hall of Famers – a scientist. He was 96 years old. Once again in our utilization center in Wyndmoor, Pennsylvania, he was the lead scientist for the development of instant potatoes. So if you can imagine that during the time when the potato industry was meeting a lot of challenges, the opportunity to create a product that enhanced the economic attractiveness of being a potato producer and also creating products for citizens, he was able to produce that product. Since then, lots of products have been borne from those instant potatoes – the process of flaked potatoes. We’re looking at products like Pringles® and some of the other potato products that have been produced based on that finding.

There is absolutely a place for small businesses. Just to give you some numbers to provide a framework, we have about 156 active licenses and 70 active collaborative research and development agreements with small businesses, which is approximately 45 percent of the active CRADAs [cooperative research and development agreements]. – Mojdeh Bahar

One that I’m really excited about, because I really like eggs, is one where we’re going to be able to enhance the amount of eggs that can be found commercially that are pasteurized and being able to work with one of our small companies to develop a process where we can pasteurize eggs on a large scale – and that’s being able to do that in a way that protects the taste, because it’s important to keep the mouthfeel, the taste, and the enjoyment of the product. I’m very excited about that upcoming commercialization.

Bahar: [There is] another one that is a great tech transfer story because a lot of the players in the ecosystem have had a part in it, in the ag ecosystem. In 2005, USDA researchers at the Southern Regional Research Center in New Orleans developed and patented a new rice flour batter. Basically the goal was to have, if you will, fried food, fried chicken, that didn’t necessarily have a lot of oil – that didn’t absorb as much oil. What was interesting is that we had assigned a particular use to it, which was deep frying with batter that didn’t absorb that much oil. But in 2005, we worked with a community college. The community college basically had an entrepreneur in the class, and a company got started. The company is called CrispTek. They found that the technology, because it was rice based, could be really good for people that were gluten intolerant.

So they built a company around it. And in Maryland, there is an economic development arm … called the Maryland Technology Development Corporation, or TEDCO. TEDCO gave them some money. So there was TEDCO involved, there was a community college involved, its ARS research. And basically a company was built around this. And CrispTek’s goal is to help consumers reduce the amount of fat and oil they consume. But also, with Choice Batter®, which is what they called their primary product, they can use it for folks that suffer from celiac disease or, even if they don’t suffer from celiac disease, that can’t tolerate gluten or that are gluten sensitive. Since then the product line has developed, and they now make brownie mixes and they make cookie mixes, and they have entered into agreements with two major food distributors to expand the product line. In 2012, CrispTek had approximately $4.7 million in sales and had created 95 jobs in four states: Maryland, Iowa, Illinois, and Texas. So the reason I like this story is, as I mentioned, you have the many players along the technology development continuum, if you will, and I think it’s a really good STEM [science, technology, engineering, and mathematics] story or entrepreneurial story because it was vetted at a community college.

Is there a way that someone, after research has been done, can look through ARS’s findings and find “Oh, ok, I see that this particular finding can help me with my business” or “I have an idea based on this research”? Does that happen?

Bahar: Yes, it does. We actually have a website that lists all of our technologies that are available for licensing. So anybody can go to our website and look at what we have to offer. We have found partners that way in addition to partners that we have through our Agricultural Research Partnership Network that also help us disseminate this information. So we have the website [www.ars.usda.gov/office-of-technology–transfer/]. We do target marketing. We have our former or current licensees and CRADA partners that use this website. But, yes, it is available, and it’s available at two different places. One is on the ARS OTT website and the other one is through the Federal Laboratory Consortium resource, which has the technologies across the federal government in one place.

Is there a current research project and partnership that you feel is poised to make a significant impact on the public?

Jacobs-Young: From my perspective, I think I would focus on this pasteurization one. You know, we talked about the beauty of the partnership. We also were talking about food safety. So a lot of points are touched with that project.

Bahar: I think there is the one that Dr. Jacobs-Young mentioned that is probably paradigm changing. And it’s also done with the Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory, which is part of the Department of Energy as well. So it has the interagency flavor and the academic partnership flavor to it as well, which would probably make a significant difference. We’re also working on a lot of animal vaccines that hopefully will be very, very impactful as well as what Dr. Jacobs-Young mentioned – the biofuels and biolubricants. We have a biolubricant that hopefully will come to market soon that we have with a partner as well.

Jacobs-Young: I just want to quickly add the one that is my absolute favorite is lactose-free milk. I didn’t say a whole lot about that, but when Mojdeh said paradigm changing. … The [invention] of lactose-free products was transformational for large portions of the population, and that was also developed inside of ARS. So it’s just a huge, huge game changer for people like myself who are lactose intolerant.

This article was originally published in the 2017 edition of U.S. Agriculture Outlook.

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