USDA creating better quality of life, safer environment through technology transfer

What do fluorescent lights that scan for Salmonella, remote sensors for testing bridge stability and a tool to identify bee mites have in common?

They’re part of the latest crop of innovative ideas that make up the 244 new inventions and 109 patent applications included in the Agriculture Department’s annual report on technology transfer.

“The report itself tries to compile new inventions, patents, technology breakthroughs, new methodologies; really the kinds of collaborations that USDA science and technology folks have with the private sector through special agreements,” said acting USDA Undersecretary Ann Bartuska.” So you have an incredible array of things that are in the annual report. My favorite ones happen to be … the things that clearly demonstrate breakthroughs and innovations. In fact, they really do represent the range of work that happens at the 16 agencies that comprise USDA.”

The report started being published within the last 20 years. Each year, there’s a call for what everybody throughout the USDA and its components is working on.

“It covers the gamut of agreements like CRADAs, which are cooperative research and development agreements with the private sector. It includes patents. It includes licenses. It includes new exploratory work that’s happening,” said Bartuska, who is also serving as acting chief scientist for research, education and economics at USDA. “So it’s really quite diverse in what it’s capturing. There is in the report tables that capture the data in those categories by agency, and then we roll it all up to one for the department.”

Bartuska said this year’s report is pretty consistent with past years’ numbers of patents and inventions, though the output can be impacted by technological breakthroughs. In fiscal 2015, the report included 222 new inventions and 125 new patent applications.

For example, gene sequencing has created a whole new set of processes and products — and subsequent opportunities for research and development, Bartuska said.

“The outcomes that — especially our intramural agencies Agricultural Research Service, Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS), the Forest Service — I think the work that they have done, the production of new things, has been pretty constant over time, with some blips,” Bartuska said. “The genomic sequencing probably is one area. There’s been some advances in pest protection and quarantine matters, that really track where they’ve had infestations, so you might be able to follow some increases and outcomes following a particular pest outbreak, and then it goes back. There’s a lot of interest in disease transmission right now. If I look at that report, there’s a lot on mosquitoes and transmissions.”

That includes the enhancement of clothing worn by Marines to better prevent bug bites.

Return on investment

Bartuska said if she had to look to future reports, she would expect to see an increase in water use and drought response.

“We’re really interested in reducing the amount of water used by Agriculture and being more responsible in the water that we use,” Bartuska said.

She said sensor technology and the use of aerial vehicles [drones], and how those technologies can be more effective and efficient, is another area where future technology transfer reports might show an increased interest.

Effectiveness and efficiency are things USDA always has in mind, especially when it comes to a return on investment for taxpayers, Bartuska said.

“One hundred percent of the people use our product because we produce food,” Bartuska said. “And so we touch everybody, but to do it in a sustainable way, to be able to meet other people’s values on the environment and water quality, we’re very conscious of that. A lot of this return on investment is how you do work more efficiently, more effectively. And again, get a lot of benefit by that dollar that we’ve been investing.”

Bartuska said according to USDA math, for every dollar invested in research and development, $20 is returned to taxpayers.

One example in the report that highlights USDA’s mission is an anti-cancer drug developed by Penn State University researchers. The drug comes from parts of Omega-3 fatty acids.

“The connection back to USDA is that other than not only funding good science, but Omega-3s are found in agricultural and aquacultural products, so you’re extracting from one of our products into something that would then benefit human health,” Bartuska said. “It really does reflect that Agriculture is in part about farming, but Agriculture is so much about all kinds of food technology that we have, diseases; the diversity, again, of activities under USDA is incredibly broad.”

The report also highlights the work USDA does with universities, the private sector and other agencies, Bartuska said.

Agreements with the private sector can come in the form of cooperative research and development agreements, and at some point, those products can be moved into the private sector.

“In some cases, the patent would be held by us and they get exclusive license on the product, but it allows us then to form and both mutually invest in an outcome,” Bartuska said. “So we’ve really been trying to promote — especially when we see the potential for a particular line of research — to become a commercial activity, to build these private sector partnerships.”

The report also complements the administration’s “Made In America,” campaign, through contributing to job growth and supporting new business, especially in rural areas, Bartuska said.

“All those products that you see in the technology transfer report, we can see them as helping to contribute to this overall ‘Made In America’ process,” Bartuska said. “Technology transfer is all about development of a research product and then moving it to somebody to use it. It is as fine to me that a CEO of a company uses something as you [would] in your home, because hopefully what you’re using is creating a better quality of life, a safer environment, a better use of resources so that we’re reducing waste, we’re reducing water consumption. So all of those things really add up to the value of what our research products can do.”

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