SAN FRANCISCO — For 30 years, Michael Wiskerchen has been eager to see microgravity research fulfill its promise. As the former director of NASA’s space physics office and program scientist for the first space shuttle mission to carry the Spacelab orbiting laboratory in its cargo bay, Wiskerchen has long been convinced space-based research would lead to important discoveries.
For decades, however, he watched as researchers were stymied by a lack of frequent, reliable access to orbit and difficulty in obtaining funding and approval to conduct experiments onboard the international space station.
As those impediments begin to fall away, Wiskerchen has come out of retirement to serve as vice president for spaceflight operations at Zero Gravity Solutions Inc. (ZGSI), a biotechnology startup that aims to use microgravity research to identify promising commercial products with applications for plants, animals and people on Earth. “The realization that this company could actually do what I dreamt of is thrilling,” Wiskerchen said.
Unlike many microgravity research initiatives, ZGSI is not patiently exploring promising avenues of research and quietly publishing its findings. Instead, researchers are working vigorously to identify Earth applications for discoveries made in space because “that’s where the market is,” said Richard Godwin, ZGSI president and chief executive.
In October, ZGSI plans to announce its first product. Godwin declined to provide details, except to say the concept emerged from research concerning nutrition for astronauts conducting deep-space missions. “If you are going to send astronauts on long space missions, they are going to have to grow their own food,” Godwin said. That food must be extremely nutritious and the plants that grow it must have robust immune systems.
ZGSI’s method for producing those robust, nutritious crops is being tested on the ground with “such incredible results we can now say we have our first space-derived product with Earth applications,” Godwin said. “We are going to build a pathway to revenue around this commercial product.”
Additional products are in the pipeline, including techniques to mass propagate human stem cells and patentable plant varieties. For example, ZGSI is working with researchers at the University of Florida in Homestead to study jatropha, a tropical plant whose berries can produce five tons of biofuel in a 10,000-square-meter area, Godwin said.
Zero Gravity Solutions Inc. at a glance
Established: January 2013
Location: Boca Raton, Fla.
Top Official: Harvey Kaye, chairman of the board
Mission: To be the first company to commercialize dramatic scientific breakthroughs in the area of unique and patentable plant, animal and human stem cells developed through the international space station to improve life on Earth.
Researchers looking for ways to make the plant more resistant to cold weather noticed that in microgravity jatropha turns on many of its genes that remain dormant on Earth. When that happens, researchers subject the plant to cold temperatures to determine which of the newly activated genes help it survive and thrive in that environment. “We now believe we have a jatropha hybrid that we will develop on orbit that will be capable of growing in West Texas as opposed to Brazil,” Godwin said.
The idea that microgravity might encourage biological organisms to express elements of their genome that are inactive on Earth initially was hypothesized by John Wayne Kennedy, a former U.S. Agriculture Department scientist who founded a company called Zero Gravity Inc. in 2006. That company, working under a Space Act Agreement with NASA, conducted research on six space shuttle missions.
Zero Gravity Inc.’s research, which was developed and managed by Wagner Vendrame, a University of Florida professor, led to a series of patents related to biological processes. When ZGSI was formed in January, it exclusively licensed those patents as well as Zero Gravity Inc.’s research and intellectual property. Kennedy now serves as ZGSI’s chief science officer and a member of its scientific advisory board.
Under a program similar to the one aimed at jatropha hybrids, ZGSI is working to develop bananas plants capable of withstanding the fungus that has attacked Cavendish bananas growing in Asia and Australia. “We feel we can possibly design a new variety that would be resistant to that disease,” Godwin said.
ZGSI executives are quick to point out that their techniques should not be confused with genetic modification of organisms. “We are not adding or subtracting genes, we are just causing the plant’s genome to express differently,” Godwin said. “We are basically producing a hybrid.” The company plans to patent those new hybrids and obtain revenue by licensing those patents to third parties, Godwin said.
ZGSI’s overarching goal of profiting from commercial success makes it stand out from many of the groups working with the Center for the Advancement of Science in Space (CASIS), the nonprofit organization based at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida tasked with managing the space station’s U.S. National Laboratory, said Duane Ratliff, CASIS chief operating officer. “ZGSI is not looking to the federal government to provide money to do fundamental research,” Ratliff said. “Rather they are looking to invest capital to create either applied research opportunities or services that can be sold for revenue. That’s the direction we need to be heading.”
ZGSI derives its funding from private investors. The company’s stock also trades publicly in the over-the-counter marketplace under the ticker symbol ZGSI.PK.
While ZGSI is focused on profits, its success and that of similar ventures could help to strengthen the position of individuals hoping to see the U.S. government extend its support for the international space station beyond 2020.
Microgravity research needs “a couple of highly recognizable achievements,” said Neal Pellis, division director of space life sciences at the Universities Space Research Association in Houston and a member of ZGSI’s scientific advisory board. “There are a lot of things we can do on the international space station. If the science opportunities are not realized in the not too distant future, its going to put at risk not only the life of the station but whether or not we will invest in going back and trying to recapture it in another venue.”