E4: Mark Cook, UW Professor/Co-Founder of AbE and Isomark – Interview

February 23, 2016



I’ve known Mark Cook for about 7 years. He is the co-Founder of multiple companies (Colinco, Isomark, Ab E Discovery, Aova) and a professor in Animal Sciences at the University of Wisconsin.


He has an amazing scientific mind. And what makes him especially strong is that he knows business. I learned a lot from him about the scientific process and what questions to ask when I was CEO, then COO, of Isomark, one of the companies Mark co-founded.


Just jump to 15:40 in the interview. This is where Mark talks about discovering how to remove hair balls in cats in less than a week after Purina’s tech team tried for a long time. It’s an awesome story.


The entire interview tells about Mark’s background, how innovation needs to happen at universities and what corporations should do to be more innovative. Mark has a very good feel of how technologies should be incubated at a university before being spun out. 


I think you’ll learn a lot from Mark, or at least something.




Dave: Welcome everyone to another podcast for Flyover Labs. Today, we are lucky enough to have Professor Mark Cook who is a professor of animal sciences at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. Mark, thanks for joining us.

Mark: Thanks Dave for coming in and listening to my story.

Dave: So, Mark is an interesting guy. I have known Mark for probably about 7 years at least now and he is quite the brilliant scientist and it is hard to know even where to start with Mark. He is a professor as we went over, and he has also been a co-founder of multiple companies, two of which right now Isomark and AbE Discovery and has also helped lead the initiative for a program at the University of Wisconsin to commercialize technologies called D2P. Mark is a busy guy and very creative, so I was pretty excited to have him on the show. He will tell you more about his background, he’ll talk more about a couple of projects he has worked on and, you know, his vision for university systems and how they can promote innovation, and what companies can learn from that too. So, we probably should get right into it. It’s hard to know how to start with Mark, but maybe we’ll have Mark tell us a little bit about his background and why animal sciences, and when did he co-found some of these companies and what happened with them, or what are they doing now?

Mark: Okay, thanks Dave for the question. Yeah, I grew up in Southern Louisiana. I was a son of an entrepreneur that was involved in the oil industry, banking, glass, a very entrepreneurial father and so one of the brothers went into the oil industry, one went into the financial world, and my dad came to me and said “well, why don’t you be a college professor” and it sounded like a pretty good idea at the time. I didn’t know anything about it. He was the first generation college kid, so I was kind of the second generation, so I went to LSU, like most kids I started off in pre-med, but to kind of cut it short, I got a degree in microbiology and the lights came on my senior year that I wanted to study nutrition in disease resistance. I knew nothing about nutrition, but quite a bit about disease and the immune response, so I went into a poultry science department to study nutrition and ended up with a guy in vet science working on a PhD at LSU or Louisiana State University working on the interface between nutrition, viral infections and the immune response; finished that in August of 1982. Within a week after or really during my going away party I got asked to come to Wisconsin as a post-doc, asked for too much money, so they made me a lecturer and I ended up having to start teaching courses the day after I got here and that was in 1982, quickly became an assistant professor and kind of moved up the ranks. Why Wisconsin? Why animal science? My love was quite broad, I always had kind of a background in animal agriculture as a kid. I worked on my uncle’s dairy farm, always had horses. Dad did not want anything to do with any of it, but it’s just kind of a passion I had, so that’s kind of how I ended up in animal science, but eventually my work spanned from animals to humans or anything that kind of popped up in between.

Dave: Interesting. Thanks Mark, and what companies have you been co-founders of over the years?

Mark: Yeah, so, you know, I really didn’t understand the innovative side or how to do it while I was a professor until about 1989 when I went on sabbatical and I bumped into a person who said she loved my ideas, but they were of no value commercially because there were no patents. Meanwhile, we had WARF back at Wisconsin, this was a sabbatical in Pennsylvania, had WARF back in Wisconsin that was a secret organization that pretty much was not available to a lot of the faculty, and so when I got back after that sabbatical, I re-tooled a lot of what we were doing and we began to do a lot more patterning in my laboratory, primarily seeking out people who licensed the technology. My first opportunity to get involved in a company was based upon some inventions Mike Pariza and I had on compound called conjugated linoleic acid or CLA and this is a fatty acid that’s natural occurring, turned out to be a very potent anti-inflammatory compound. We can make it in the laboratory and Mike and I stumbled on that it prevented fat accumulation, so that launched into a dietary supplement by a group out of Norway, I had started a company called Natural Lipids. They became very interested in getting into animal agriculture and so I kind of turned around with the CEO of that Norwegian company, meeting with different agriculture companies and pretty much I heard no after each one of these encounters saying I don’t think that it is the right company, so they finally said, well why don’t we start our own and this was with the guy from Norway as well as a guy named Ken Johnson who used to be at WARF and Ken was a pretty much firm believer that professors should not be involved in business, but I sided up against the Norwegian, I said whatever Ken gets to buy in, I want to buy in, so I was able to buy in as a co-founder of that company, not a huge percent because most of the money was coming in from the Norwegian, so that was my first launch. After that, we had made some more discoveries and had a lot of patents on antibody technology that are antibodies that are used orally and we had one that was licensed to DuPont and ConAgra for controlling appetite in chickens and enhancing feed efficiency and I was trying to get them to license another one that was much better, but they wouldn’t do it, so we spun out a company with a guy named called Bob Kirshner and Greg Johnson, a couple of entrepreneurs who were looking for another company to start and that company was called aOva Technologies, so we launched that company, I think somewhere around 2001 to 2002. The third company that we launched was very different, but really the same pathway, was based upon some work I was doing with Warren Porter in Zoology analyzing exhaled breath for markers of inflammation and Warren was actually interested in trying to determine if animals he caught like field mice were catabolic or anabolic, and we came up with this kind of neat idea of analyzing breath for biomarkers of these mice that resulted in patents, and it wasn’t long before we realized that we had stumbled onto something that could detect the onset of infection. We tried to get this launched in animal agriculture, couldn’t get any traction, anybody to license it, so we spun out a company, I think Dave that was around 2004 – 2005 called Isomark and in fact Dave actually came and helped us organize that company for several years and served as a CEO and it focuses mainly on intensive care patients. I thought I’d never start another company and scientists in my lab were working on a project and we stumbled on to something quite by accident, which was, we were trying to do something else and it was an antibody to a cytokine produced by the immune system called interleukin-10 and very shortly in experiments we discovered this could actually replace antibiotics in animal agriculture. We did not start that company until literally somebody had the purchase order in hand to buy the product and then we realized we needed to launch this thing fairly quickly. Again, we went back to Dave Cruz and said “hey! Can u help us get this put together? and that company is AbE Discovery which we just launched, I think in April of 2015, that’s correct.

Dave: Interesting. Mark, can you talk a little bit more about, because I was really interested in how for AbE, for the chicken technology, how you took that through the university and you nurtured it, incubated it, and then finally launched after you almost had a purchase order. I think we have talked about this, it seems like a really good model for other researchers and universities to use.

Mark: Yeah, so having been involved, we were pretty successful with the first company which was called ConLinco, that one got sold to ___11:05___, but the next two companies both aOva Technology and Isomark were not developed fully enough for a company launch and one of the problems we had on campus once you launch a company, there are state dealings, laws with the public institutions which makes it very difficult for the professor to continue to be involved in research associated with those companies, and so in the case of AbE even before that company was founded, we had identified we had some major problems with launching companies on Madison’s campus. We were doing about 350 disclosures a year on campus to WARF, probably falling somewhere around 200 to 250 patents, but we were dismal in startups, I mean, the bottom of the heap and so I was the chair of the university committee which is an executive committee for the senate on campus and Paul DeLuca our provost kept talking about this initiative he wanted to start called Discovery to Product or D2P. It was going to be a joint venture between the university and WARF, focused on trying to help start up more companies, and so I kept bringing Paul in to talk to our committee about this and give us the updates and nothing was happening. They started working on his about 2010, and it was pretty much stalled out until right before they hired the secretary of commerce Becky Blank to be our chancellor, then all the activity picked up. She must have told them she was interested in entrepreneurial activity, so the current chancellor in WARF and the provost came to me and asked me if I would launch a Discovered to Product and try to build this program. We had about $3.6 million or $3.2 million to get this launched. I looked it over, I agreed to help launch it. I looked over the mission they had put together and I realized from an entrepreneur’s point of view that we had some very large gaping holes and one of those was that there was just really no cash on our campus to speak off that would take innovations and help march them to the private sector, particularly incubate them on campus and D2P could be the perfect model where we would have mentors and residents, people from the business world who could help faculty, staff, and students take the innovations, fund the development to de-risk these, primarily in the market area some research might be needed as well, but to move these much closer to a start off where they had a better chance and so with AbE we were able to do that and use that particular launch vehicle as well as another program put together by WARF called their accelerator program to both technically de-risk this innovation, then market de-risked the innovation and so pretty much like I said we had somebody that was ready to buy the product before we actually launched the company and so that was kind of the goal in the vision for D2P is how can we incubate these innovations, develop them as long as possible on campus before we kick them out the door and they have to operate on their own.

Dave: Interesting, that’s a good story Mark, and so, yeah, I have known Mark for a few years and I have learned a ton from him. I always remember one story you told, and I bring this up because it is a good example of how Mark just thinks differently than a lot of folks. So, Mark can you share your hairball stories?

Mark: Yeah, yeah, that was my fastest discovery and license I think. So kind of my goal is not necessarily to start companies, I like to develop products and get them licensed. If I believe in the product and it does not get licensed, then I have to get involved and put my personal cash in it and start the company to see if we can get it going. This one was a pet food company and I might as well say their name, it’s Purina because they are the ones that sells the product, came to me and I asked if they could give me some money for consulting on studying CLA or conjugated linoleic acid in pet foods, and this would be one phone call a month and that they would give and kind of pick my brain, they are down in St. Louis, I’m here in Madison, and I said well, why don’t you just give a gift to the university that my lab can use instead of consulting fees, so they agreed to that, and so during this process we were working not only on CLA and pets looking at data, but they had some other ideas or problems that they were trying to solve and one that came up every session on these phone calls was hairballs in cats and it just wasn’t my forte, it’s out of what I do, but they pestered me after about 3 or 4 months “well, do you have any other ideas on hairballs in cats” and so eventually I just asked them a simple question on one of these phone calls. I said well, what is a hairball and all their scientists and veterinarians and business guys starting laughing at me and said while it is just hair. I said well, ship me 20, and so they shipped me 20 hairballs, I got it overnight express in a styrofoam crate. I didn’t look at it or anything, I handed the crate to a guy named Jim Turk who was in my lab, an undergraduate. He was grinding up mice and analyzing them for another CLA project at the time, and I said give a proximal analysis on these hairballs, I think that’s what they are and I need it quick. So within about 5 days, he had analyzed them for protein level, moisture level, fiber level, ash level, and fat level, and he brought me in a scrap of paper where he had analyzed about four of them and I noticed that they were running as high as 30% fat, so it was not all protein, it was a lot of fat associated with these hairballs. Well, I think the next thing is obvious to anybody that is thinking about this, so I yelled at my technician, I said get me 2 beakers, put them at pH2 which is the pH of the stomach, that is where the hairball gets hung up, drop a hairball in each beaker and come and tell me what you see in about 20 minutes, so Beth Drake comes in about 20 minutes later and I said what did you see? She said nothing. I said yeah they are floating like corks right? She said yes, so I walked in the lab, I did the dishes at home and I grabbed Dawn detergent by the sink and I squirted it, that’s the first time I saw a hairball, squirted in one of the beakers and I said don’t stir it, don’t do anything and come and tell me what happens in 20 minutes. She came back in and she said the one you squirted Dawn in fell apart. I said, well collect some data and she said what data? I said I don’t know, why not clumpy hair versus loose hair, so she began to repeat the experiment using a control, then she would separate out the loose hair from the clumpy hair and get weights on it and she brought that into the lab. Meanwhile, I was doing patent searches on the use of fat emulsifiers like food grade emulsifiers like lesser than which comes from soy bean oil and different Tweens ___20:50___, different types of product on the treatment of bezoars or hairballs, and there was nothing in the patent literature, so I called up WARF and I said is John Hardeman at WARF? I said, I think I have a patent and he said what’s that? A treatment for preventing hairballs in cats, so John says love it and he says do you have any data? So about that time Beth walked in with a paper towel with her data, I said yeah I got data, and he said well, could you send it over and I said well, let me photocopy the paper towel and fax it to you, so I did that and he said this is great, when do you need the patent. I said we need to move on this really quick because these guys are going to call me up about the hairballs, so we got our patent files fairly quick through Quarles & Brady and sure enough the guys called me up for I guess that once a month call and the first thing they were all laughing on the other end of the line about what did you do with the hairballs and everybody was giggling, so I guessed it was a big joke until I said I analyzed them and it got dead quiet and a business guy said, well what did you find? I said they are 30% fat, all you need to do is add a little fat emulsifier, food grade emulsifier and I said, oh by the way, you better call WARF if you want a license to the patent, so they did. They licensed the pattern. They never talked to me again after that, but they did license the patent and bring that product into the market place.

Dave: That’s brilliant. I’ve told a very short version of that to multiple people just to show what you can do, so I’m curious, for you kind of the innovation process, I mean do you have a process or what makes you think that, or you’re just curious or what makes you build or come up with new ideas? Is it just meeting people in the hallways or maybe it’s none of the above? Do you have a process or do you have, what works for you?

Mark: Yeah, so when I think of the research we do in our lab, it’s pretty divided and there is research, which I would say the vast majority of research that goes on campus is focused on the creation of knowledge and this is research that is answering the next question about how a system works, how something functions. Very often in that type of work, there is not patentable information.

Dave: Can you give us an example?

Mark: Well, for example, we’ve been studying CLA that is present in dairy fat and we are trying to understand the role of dairy fat in the prevention of inflammatory diseases such as arthritis, cardiovascular disease, lupus those types of things and so you can’t patent dairy fat. We have already done all the patenting on CLA, but we are trying to build the knowledge base of how these fatty acids and dairy fat are affecting disease and why dairy fat actually may be of value. So that would be probably a pretty good example even in our IO-10 work, we are doing a lot trying to understand the secretion of IO-10 and when it occurs and why it occurs, and where it gets secreted which are knowledge-based research projects, not patentable. The difference between the knowledge creation and what I tend to call innovation is these off shoots and they can be accidental or they can be intentional, but the frame of mind is very different when thinking about innovation versus knowledge and it’s really thinking about the knowledge that is creating with this constant calculator in the back of your mind, does this have practical implication and where can it be applied, and what do you have to do to make it applied. So that’s one way, is constantly watching your research to see how it might be applied into the real field, to give you an example of that; when we were doing our interleukin-10 work and making antibodies to interleukin-10, that was all knowledge based. We were trying to create a model of inflammation and once we discovered that model of inflammation, we could use that to try to find innovations to prevent it. In the course of those studies, when we started infecting animals we began to realize that we were actually curing the diseases that we were hoping to come up with a solution using that model. Jordan missed that at first and he came in and he said the experiments failed. The chickens given the anti-IO-10 when infected didn’t show more infection, they showed less and immediately I knew if it was less that was a good thing, and otherwise we probably would have missed it because we are so focused on a hypothesis and testing very specific things. So it’s always having to mark it in the back of your mind of what is needed, what can be used, what can be created from the knowledge-based research that we do and a second is more intentional where we began to know that there is a problem that has a market potential that has been identified and we began to ask questions how can we fix that particular problem. That is not what we train PhD’s to do per se, although we incorporate that into a program, but it’s very often what I have post docs and scientists working on, which is solving problems and trying to create innovations to solve problems that fit a market need.

Dave: That’s a great segway into my next question, was more around PhD’s and post docs at universities, and what’s your vision for those roles, and I mean this doesn’t apply to everyone, but at least from your perspective, who do you recruit? who you are interested in, and do you see kind of that same model going across to different parts of the university?

Mark: I think it’s a good question. So I am very concerned about kind of what we do in training PhD’s. First of all, there is such a few PhD’s that actually go into academia and fewer and fewer every day, and so I think that we can’t continue to just simply train PhD’s in our lab expecting that they are going to become professors, and actually a lot of them don’t want to become professors. So I think we need to also be training PhD’s that are equipped to go into working in various companies and businesses. Now my lab, I tend to sort out and attract a very specific type of PhD and post doc, but the PhD, I will start with that. I am looking for entrepreneurial PhDs. They may start off with they are willing to consider academia or business or even creating their own technology. We still have to get them through the traditional PhD program which is a knowledge-based program, but I try to take the graduate student working on a PhD and I introduce them to the entrepreneurial world through entrepreneurial boot camp, which is taught on campus and some different entrepreneurial activities that are available. I do not have a lot of my PhD students following patents, but I do have some and some are more entrepreneurial than others. I then attract at a post doc level very entrepreneurial post docs, all of them tend to be very specifically focused in on creating innovations that solve problems. With the potential of following patents and the possibility of spinning off companies and that’s been very rewarding. Do we do a lot of that on campus? There are Keta Labs that are probably better at it than other labs and I wouldn’t say a lot of labs, but there are some labs that have a pretty good history of it. We probably are still hiring faculty that are more along the knowledge-based creation and less along the areas of what I call innovation and considering the market place. So how we teach courses, for example, is also probably being affected in that we are still teaching much more heavy and knowledge base than innovation base. There is a shift that is going on where we are not taking these kids that are all excited about creating, sticking them in a chair for 4 years and given them a diploma, but we are giving them more playgrounds to become innovative and we are seeing a lot of undergraduates which are becoming more entrepreneurial and innovative. I think the day of kids wanting to work for a big company is changing very rapidly and I actually mentioned this to a CTO of a large multibillion dollar company that the kids today are not aspiring to go work for large companies. Many of them are looking for more entrepreneurial activities and as an institution we need to be providing more of those opportunities in our education.

Dave: And speaking of large companies, you have worked with a lot of large companies over the years, Do you have any thoughts or suggestions how they can probably be more innovative or set themselves up from your experience or is it just, well, they have advantages with probably additional resources, but do they have limitations too that you don’t have?

Mark: Well, I think especially in trying to get new innovative products licensed to large companies is very, very difficult. It either doesn’t exactly fit their business plan, but very often we are talking to people, if we talk to the scientists in the large companies, it seems like their whole job is to kill the idea, so they tend not to be very open to new ideas and innovations. They are along the mindset of creating the types of products that they create and the less you can get to a pretty high level person within a company, ideally the CEO is the best place, that’s where I think there is more receptivity to innovative ideas. The general scientist is just not going to take the risk, it needs to come from the top down and so that’s been the biggest struggle in licensing I think today some of the innovations, so the only alternative is to actually start a company with those innovations. Hopefully, you can get enough cash to make it progress far enough along, and then eventually may be one of those large companies will see the potential of the technology and then they’ll buy that technology out after it’s been tested and proven on the ground, but they are not going to invest very early. They’ve got to see quite a bit of progress before they’re going to step in.

Dave: Alright, one more question and then we will wrap it up. We are going over our 30 minutes, but that’s okay Mark. We can talk for 3 hours I think. So lastly, I was curious how the process works and maybe get an example of how an idea starts, and then you test it, and you test it some more, and then, you know, might do more even larger field trials, and then finally bring it to commercialization. Primarily we talking about one technology, like Oh! this has a lot of promise, but you are like, it might take 2 or 3 years before we know for sure, so how does that whole process work?

Mark: Yeah, so I am making changes now in how I do that process from the actual design to the end product and I won’t go into details on one that we have got a new initiative on campus where there is about 3 professors, may be 4 involved, where we are interested in the byproducts of the slaughter industry, which there is a lot of byproducts in the slaughter industry, those are all the molecules that kept the animal alive, how to isolate some of those high value molecules from the animal and turn them into useful products. So the trick is first to come up with the idea, in our case we like not only the idea, but we want to march through all the way to where it is going to be used, how big is the market, how much can we produce it for, will the market buy it, in some cases talking to people in the market before we ever pick up the pipette or ask for the first dollar, and then we have to come up with some form of resources, limited resources to begin to kind of step this project forward through some kind of benchmarking, and then I like more having companies involved in this all the way through and then I used to try to do all the experimental trials on my campus, I look for collaborations from other universities who have better resources than I do. I’ll contract out testing the labs if I need to. Whatever it takes to kind of put this together and then get it into the hands of the user as fast as we can to field test it and I think the goal was to kill these ideas as fast as we can so we can move on to the next one and not fall in love with these things too much. You can fall in love with knowledge creation, but not innovation.

Dave: Okay, that was interesting. Well, I think we are out of time, so Mark I definitely appreciate it. I learned actually a lot, even though I have known you for years, I still learned about your background and ideas, so I appreciate your time and thoughts.

Mark: Thanks, Dave for having me.

Dave: Alright, bye everyone. We’ll see you on the next podcast.