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President Obama’s Startup America Initiative Helps Agricultural Innovation Create Economic Opportunity

As Chief Scientist at the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), it is my privilege to lead the talented researchers and scientists throughout the department. USDA scientists work to solve some of the world’s biggest problems in preserving our health through nutrition, feeding a growing planet, and managing our precious land, water, and energy resources.  Every day, I am impressed by the innovation and accomplishments of our scientists.  It is innovation and dedication of this kind that fuels economic growth and the creation of new industries, businesses, jobs, products, and services.

One major driver of successful innovation is technology transfer—the private sector adoption of research outcomes—of federally-funded research from universities and federal laboratories to the marketplace.

Often, research performed by federal scientists or supported by the federal government is leveraged by the private sector to serve the broader public. It creates jobs, spurs economic growth and enhances global competitiveness of the U.S. agriculture sector.

Today, this type of innovation is more critical than ever. That is why I’m so excited for President Obama’s Startup America initiative.

In a recently released memo, the President has directed all federal departments and agencies conducting research and development to accelerate commercialization of federally-funded research and to reduce barriers to the formation of high-growth businesses.  The President’s memo directs USDA and others to improve this process by establishing and tracking performance metrics, streamlining administrative processes, and facilitating local and regional partnerships to accelerate the transfer and commercialization of technology.

In remarks earlier this week, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack urged Congress to find ways to support federal research.

“Studies have shown that public investments in agricultural research earn a 20 dollars-to-1 return of investment in the U.S. economy,” said Vilsack. “Once that information is disseminated to farmers, ranchers, and producers, they take it and make it work. And these benefits extend beyond just economic returns. Research also leads to improved soil and water and air quality, and they help us to design strategies that will enable us to deal with the impacts of the changing climate.”

At USDA, I’m especially excited to advance our Agricultural Technology Innovation Partnership program (ATIP), where USDA partners with established economic development organizations across the country.  While federal R&D agencies only have authority and expertise to transfer “technical capabilities” to private businesses, our ATIP partners, or “intermediaries,” like the Maryland Technology Development Corporation (TEDCO), have the assets that help companies succeed: business mentors, links to entrepreneurship schools, manufacturing assistance, and access to fiscal resources to ensure these companies are successful at taking our science-based innovations to the market.

A great example of this is in the creation of CrispTek, Inc., in Columbia, Md. This business used an innovation from USDA’s New Orleans laboratory for a rice-based batter flour and combined it with a business plan developed by an entrepreneur class at Howard Community College in Maryland which identified the value of gluten-free products to people suffering from Celiac’s Disease. Two class members and another investor formed the company, licensed the technology, received start up funds from TEDCO, and sold their first products at an event in Baltimore just 8 months later. In the past three years, this product has expanded to over 500 stores nationwide.

Recently, TEDCO and USDA partnered to hold a number of regional events throughout Maryland, called Rural Agriculture and Business Innovation Forums. The goal of these forums is to provide rural farmers and businesses with solutions to help address their regional agricultural problems.  Based on the initial successes, next year these forums will be piloted nationally by the ATIP members in conjunction with USDA researchers, cooperative extension service, community leaders, and the Manufacturing Extension Partnership program from the National Institute of Standards and Technology.

As President Obama’s Startup America initiative takes effect, USDA will continue to ensure that federally-funded innovations from research are adopted by the private sector to produce goods and services, jobs and greater opportunity for all Americans.

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