MUSKEGON — A scientist-turned-entrepreneur hopes to commercialize technology that will map and provide a specific treatment plan for invasive aquatic plant species based on their genetic profile.
As the first step in that mission, Muskegon-based GenPass LLC has targeted water milfoil, a highly invasive species in Michigan and elsewhere that can clog lakes with massive mats of vegetation and choke out fish and other aquatic life.
While environmental consultancies — which form the majority of GenPass’s customer base — know how to treat milfoil, the species has hybridized over the years to resist conventional herbicides, said owner Syndell Parks. Without knowing which variety of milfoil is in a given lake, those firms run the risk of wasting money and time using the incorrect treatment.
“The idea of using it as a snapshot of what’s there right now gives you an idea of, ‘OK, we have a hybrid here, maybe we should go ahead and treat this whole lake super aggressively a couple different ways to make sure we knock it back and we knock it back for good’ so that you’re not wasting those resources,” Parks said.
Currently, most of the customers for GenPass use the technology as a risk-assessment tool, but the company and several universities around the country are working to develop more specific gene mapping that can help environmental consultants tailor a treatment plan based on a plant’s specific genetic code.
However, that technology is likely four years away, Parks said.
In the meantime, GenPass is in the process of developing tools to monitor the spread of water milfoil over time and create a comprehensive map of waterways so customers know how to treat them.
“(With) the idea of tracking how each type of water milfoil is responding to treatment every single year, you can slowly tweak your treatments to make them better and better,” Parks said. “That way, you can slowly learn what does work on hybrids and why it works better, but you can also minimize the risk of wasted resources for years.”
Ultimately, Parks hopes to partner with a larger research lab that does environmental testing to provide stability for her firm over the long term.
“The ideal for me, because I’m not a business person and I’m not sure I can take this as far as someone with that background could, is to partner with a business that already does environmental testing,” she said. “When we partner, I can help with product development, research and development, public education and marketing, and they would handle the business plan and market development.”
The company is currently in talks with Muskegon Heights-based Trace Analytical Laboratories LLC to form a partnership that would provide customers the species identification technology GenPass offers combined with water quality testing from Trace. The pilot program would serve as a test for the two companies to work closer in the future, Parks said.
TRANSITIONING INTO A BUSINESS
The technology GenPass uses today to identify water milfoil was originally pioneered in the mid 2000s by Parks’ graduate adviser, Dr. Ryan Thum at Grand Valley State University (GVSU).
In 2012, GVSU and Thum applied for a grant through the National Science Foundation to transition the technology from the lab bench to commercialization.
The grant required a student to lead the commercialization effort. While Parks — then a graduate student — knew little about operating a business, she jumped at the opportunity to make national connections in her field.
“I joined thinking that it probably wouldn’t go anywhere, but it would be national contacts that I would have … and it evolved from there,” Parks said.
While Parks has settled into her role leading GenPass, she admits the transition from graduate student scientist to entrepreneur was “really hard.”
However, since GenPass is located in the Muskegon Innovation Hub, a business incubator housed under GVSU, Parks has access to the mentors and the funds needed to help grow the business.
“The whole running a business type of world is a completely different way of thinking,” she said. “The people at the Hub are very good at telling me, ‘You’re thinking like a scientist. You can’t think like a scientist, you have to think like an entrepreneur.’”
Given her scientific background, Parks said she often looks to rely on long-term data collection and corroboration to develop new services the company could offer, admitting that she struggles with thinking about what services the company could commercialize in the short term.
“She’s a brilliant scientist and loves the research side of it. You can clearly see her eyes light up when she talks about that, but parlaying that into a business is a different realm,” said Kevin Ricco, director of the Muskegon Innovation Hub. “She knows her strengths but understands the areas she needs assistance in. That’s where we help her out.”
Beyond mentorship, the Muskegon Innovation Hub also invested $7,500 of its discretionary funding into hiring a marketing researcher to help GenPass develop its branding. GenPass currently is concentrating on growing its marketing and launching an updated website, Parks said.
GenPass is Muskegon Innovation Hub’s first tenant following the organization’s rebranding from the Michigan Alternative and Renewable Energy Center, or MAREC, in May 2016. The business incubator rebranded to focus on attracting startups from a wider range of industries, not just energy, as MiBiz first reported.