Innovators’ Achievements Honored With 2021 Chancellor’s Innovation Awards

The University of California, Davis, today (June 24) named the recipients of the 2021 Chancellor’s Innovation Awards. The awards recognize faculty, project teams and community partners for their work, dedication and success in improving the lives of others and addressing the needs of our global society through innovative solutions.

“UC Davis research not only unlocks key insights to understand the world’s most critical challenges, it generates innovative solutions with tremendous benefits to our society through new products, services, education and art,” Chancellor Gary S. May said. “I would like to congratulate the recipients of our innovation awards for their success in reaching beyond what is expected — even beyond what is imagined by others — to provide solutions addressing important needs.”

The awards comprise Innovator of the Year, Innovative Community Partner and Lifetime Achievement in Innovation. The program is managed by the Office of Research.

“Researchers across the campus work tirelessly throughout their careers to develop solutions that advance quality of life and drive economic growth,” said Prasant Mohapatra, vice chancellor for Research at UC Davis. “These awards honor the significance of their work and the valuable contribution to our society.”

Innovators of the Year

The Innovator of the Year awards recognize individual faculty, staff or teams whose innovative research or accomplishments have made a measurable societal impact in the preceding year, or whose activities have achieved important milestones and present very strong potential for societal impact. Recipients receive $10,000 to apply to their research or community engagement efforts.

Mark Mascal, professor in the Department of Chemistry

Mark Mascal has brought forward an array of innovative and sustainable solutions for energy, electronics, and medicine using novel applications of synthetic organic chemistry. Innovations from his lab have led to patent filings for 15 inventions and licenses with six companies. Most notable over the last year was the advancement of a carbon-negative, recyclable plastic made from waste biomass to replace current petroleum-based plastic bottles and food containers — potentially eliminating the need for millions of barrels of oil.

This technology was licensed to Origin Materials, a Sacramento-based company, to commercialize the foundational platform developed in Mascal’s lab. Origin has raised over $900 million to develop commercial products with the technology.

The Mascal lab has also developed synthetic, inexpensive, non-narcotic pseudo-cannabinoids for use in medical treatments and wellness products. These synthetic analogues address current regulatory barriers that differ from state to state and offer a more environmentally friendly approach to production compared to hemp cultivation. He founded Syncanica Bio to commercialize the technology.

Another startup, Furanica, emerged from the Mascal lab based on the development of a high-yield process to synthesize cardioprotective antioxidants found in fish oils.  

Innovative and sustainable solutions developed in the Mascal Lab

David E. Olson, assistant professor, Department of Chemistry and Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Medicine 

David Olson’s research focuses on harnessing neuroplasticity to treat neuropsychiatric and neurodegenerative diseases like depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, addiction and Alzheimer’s disease. He has identified a new class of medicines called psychoplastogens that rewire the brain to heal damaged neural circuits.

Olson’s team was the first to demonstrate that psychedelic compounds like LSD, MDMA, and ibogaine are particularly effective psychoplastogens, providing a possible explanation for why these compounds produce sustained therapeutic effects after only a single administration. While psychedelic drugs have been shown to hold great promise for treating a variety of brain disorders, they can have serious side effects including hallucinations, cardiac toxicity and abuse liability.

To address these drawbacks, Olson engineered several safer, non-hallucinogenic variants which include analogs of psilocybin, ibogaine and MDMA. These next-generation psychoplastogens produce long-lasting therapeutic effects without the liabilities associated with psychedelics.

This work led to Olson to co-found Delix Therapeutics — a company dedicated to using neuroplasticity-promoting small molecules to treat a variety of brain disorders. The company has licensed several patents developed in Olson’s lab and raised over $15 million in venture capital funds. By expanding patient access to psychoplastogenic medicines, Olson hopes to have a broad and lasting impact on mental health.

David Olson discusses neuroplasticity and developing new treatments for psychiatric disorders. 

Innovative Community Partner Award

City of Davis, Professor Richard Michelmore, and the Healthy Davis Together Team

Healthy Davis Together is a joint effort between UC Davis and the city of Davis, established to minimize the spread of COVID-19, keep the community healthy, resume education and move the economy forward. The program developed an array of complementary services including free rapid testing, health education and promotion, protective equipment, quarantine assistance, innovative incentive programs, environmental monitoring and vaccination centers.

Long counter in gym with plastic dividers separating employees from people submitting saloiva samples.
COVID testing kiosk at the Activities and Recreation Center. (Anjie Cook/UC Davis)

Knowing that asymptomatic spread of COVID-19 presented one of the key challenges to managing the pandemic, the team realized the success of this program would greatly benefit from the development and deployment of a testing platform capable of rapidly identifying asymptomatic, infectious individuals.

Richard Michelmore

Richard Michelmore, distinguished professor in the departments of Plant Sciences, Molecular and Cellular Biology, and Medical Microbiology and Immunology, and director of the Genome Center at UC Davis guided the development of the innovative COVID-19 testing platform by adapting high-throughput genome testing typically used in the agricultural biotechnology arena. It was through the creative deployment of this technology and the efforts of many individuals working together in collaboration with the city of Davis that Healthy Davis Together was able to provide routine mass testing not only to the university but also to the entire community. The program has administered more than 525,000 tests and identified more than 1,850 individuals who tested positive, with the majority of results reported within 24 hours of collection. The same technology is also used to examine all positive samples for variants of the coronavirus.  The program has received national attention including being featured in The New York Times.

Lifetime Achievement Awards in Innovation

The Lifetime Achievement Awards in Innovation recognize researchers whose career accomplishments include innovations leading to a long-term positive impact on the lives of others and who are an inspiring influence for other innovators.

Annabeth Rosen, distinguished professor of art, Robert Arneson Endowed Chair 

Annabeth Rosen cutline

Annabeth Rosen, at UC Davis since 1997, serves as co-chair of the Department of Art and Art History and is the holder of the Arneson Endowed Chair. She is a true innovator in the area of ceramic sculpture. Over the past three decades, her distinguished reputation within the art world has progressively gained broader reach, and her accomplishment as a sculptor has been increasingly recognized. Directly confronting the aesthetic and physical relationships between sculptural form and painterly surface, Rosen’s work is centered on the density and intensity of accumulating the objects, marks and ideas of eccentric abstraction. With its composite materials and chemical properties, her formally intuitive process is enabled by a complex understanding of ceramic history, placing her work in the tradition of experimental yet masterful sculptors such as Lynda Benglis and Eva Hesse. 

Rosen has received numerous awards including two National Endowment for the Arts Fellowships, a 1992 Pew Fellowship in the Arts, a 2011 Joan Mitchell Foundation Painters and Sculptors Award, a 2016 United States Artists Fellowships, a 2018 Guggenheim Fellowship and the 2018 Gwendolyn Knight Lawrence Award. Most recently Rosen was named one of five 2020 American Craft Council Fellows.

A major survey of her art, “Annabeth Rosen: Fired, Broken, Gathered, Heaped,” was shown at the Contemporary Arts Museum, Houston; the Cranbrook Art Museum; and the Jewish Museum in San Francisco between 2017 and 2020. Her work has also been exhibited at The Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, Art Basel’s OVR, P.P.O.W. Gallery in New York, The American Academy of Arts and Letters in New York, among others.

Howard-Yana Shapiro, senior fellow, Plant Sciences, Plant Reproductive Biology, College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences 

Howard Yana Shapiro with long white beard

Howard-Yana Shapiro is a globally renowned expert in plant science with an emphasis in sustainable agriculture and genomic sequencing. Over his 50-year career, Shapiro has released hundreds to cultivars into the public domain.

He has served as the chief agricultural officer for Mars Inc., senior fellow in plant sciences at UC Davis’ College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences, Ford Foundation fellow, Fulbright scholar, the first Mars Advanced Research Institute fellow, Resilient Landscapes distinguished senior fellow at World Agroforestry (CIFOR-ICRAF) and distinguished fellow at the World Agroforestry Centre in Nairobi, Kenya.

While working for Mars, Shapiro led the global effort to sequence the cacao, peanut and mint genomes. The cacao genome was published for free to accelerate the development of faster growing and more resilient varieties. 

In 2011, Shapiro founded the African Orphan Crops Consortium to fight malnutrition and poverty in Africa by improving the continent’s traditional food crops. The consortium brought together experts from Mars, UC Davis and a wide range of researchers, industry groups and policymakers. Together, they mapped the genomes of 67 indigenous African food crops to help breeders improve the nutritional content, productivity and resilience.

He also established the African Plant Breeding Academy with UC Davis at the World Agroforestry Centre in Nairobi to train Africa’s best plant breeding scientists and technicians to use the latest equipment and techniques. To date 115 cohorts have graduate the African Plant Breeding Academy.

Most recently, Shapiro and colleagues from UC Davis, the University of Wisconsin-Madison and Mars found an indigenous Mexican variety of corn that captures the nitrogen it needs from the air — allowing the corn to thrive without fertilizer.

About the awards program

The UC Davis Chancellor’s Innovation Awards program was established in 2016 to celebrate the university’s innovative contributions to the regional and global community. The program is run by Venture Catalyst, a unit within the Innovation and Technology Commercialization division of the Office of Research.

The call for nominations for this year’s award was issued in February 2021.

Nominations were reviewed by a selection committee consisting of past recipients, representatives from the Office of Research, external partners and delegates named by the deans of various UC Davis schools and colleges. Committee members rated each nomination based on a predetermined protocol evaluating the uniqueness of the innovation(s) and their potential societal impact. Recommendations from the committee were then submitted to the chancellor and provost and executive vice chancellor, and vice chancellor of research for final approval.

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