In an announcement from Purina, University of Arizona startup uPetsia was named as one of five winners of the 2022 annual Pet Care Innovation Prize. Founded by associate professors Eric Lyons and David Baltrus in the UArizona College of Agriculture & Life Sciences School of Plant Sciences and the BIO5 Institute, the startup was launched with the help of the university’s commercialization arm Tech Launch Arizona (TLA) to develop and commercialize a harmless bacteria strain to battle bad dog breath. The company has most recently landed at the UArizona Center for Innovation (UACI) Oro Valley where it is going through a comprehensive incubation program.
“The recognition from Purina’s Pet Care Innovation team is phenomenal,” Lyons said. “It is a long, hard road to translate a research idea into a successful company, and we know that we couldn’t have gone so far without the continued support of the TLA and UACI teams.”
More than 120 companies from 75 cities globally applied for the 2022 Pet Care Innovation Prize. Each of the five startup winners will receive $10,000, mentorship from Purina and will participate in a virtual accelerator boot camp featuring pet experts from across the company and the pet care industry. During a culminating pitch competition in March, the five winners will get the chance to present their businesses to an audience of industry influencers and investors, and a grand prize winner will be chosen at Global Pet Expo to receive an additional $10,000 in cash.
The UArizona invention solves the problem of bad dog breath by modifying natural canine oral bacteria to produce mint aromas. Other products, such as toothpaste and chew treats, use flavors and scents to cover bad breath and last for only a few minutes. When the harmless bacterial strain Lyons and Baltrus developed enters a dog's mouth, the bacteria remain for about two hours, producing a pleasant smell. The bacteria could be incorporated into specially formulated treats, chews and food for dogs, making them easy to use, Lyons said.
"We're working on improving the duration efficacy of the product up to eight or 12 hours, and we want to develop other scent offerings," he said.
The researchers developed the strain by screening hundreds of bacteria found in dog mouths, identifying 20 that were harmless and easy to modify. They synthesized DNA constructs, encoding enzymes for producing mint or pear smells, and put those genetic programs into the selected bacteria, choosing the ones that worked best for further development and optimization.
With help from Tech Launch Arizona, Lyons founded the company with business development expert Scott Zentack. The office provided services to refine, protect and license the intellectual property, funding to develop the technology through its Asset Development program, and mentorship and coaching for the startup team through its Mentor-in-Residence and NSF i-Corps programs.
“This is a great achievement for the uPetsia team and recognition of the quality of the innovation here at UArizona, said TLA Associate Vice President Doug Hockstad. “This team has taken an innovation that started as a scientific idea and worked tirelessly to bring it to the world. We’re excited to see their vision and impact coming to fruition, and gratified that market leaders like Purina are recognizing that excellence, as well.”
From TLA, uPetsia moved on to its next step in the innovation ecosystem, the UArizona Center for Innovation (UACI) startup incubator at the UArizona Tech Park. In May 2021, uPetsia won the UACI Sponsored Launch by the Oro Valley Chamber of Commerce competition, which is providing the company with UACI’s comprehensive incubation program and space at their biotech incubator facility in Oro Valley. uPetsia participates in the incubator’s structured program that takes them through a continuum of education provided by mentors, advisors, and community collaborators. UACI also provides access to service providers, industry cluster groups, interns and connections to potential customers and strategic partners. The total value of the package is $10,000 and is funded by the Oro Valley Chamber of Commerce.
“uPetsia is a great example of what happens when you mix innovative technology, motivated founders, and comprehensive university and community support,” said Eric Smith, executive director of UACI. “We are thrilled to continue working with UPetia as they continue their upward trajectory and we are thankful to the Oro Valley Chamber of Commerce for helping uPetsia find their way to our programming and labs.”
The Pet Care Innovation Prize is a collaborative effort of Purina's 9 Square Ventures group and investing leaders Active Capital to support and connect with early-stage pet care startups that are currently in market with an innovative business addressing pet and pet owner needs in the areas of pet health and wellness, services, technology, and food, treats or litter.
As Purina's corporate venturing group, 9 Square Ventures is focused on connecting with pet care startups. The team's mission is to leverage Purina's knowledge, experience, and financial resources to help emerging pet care startups scale their businesses and make a positive impact on the lives of as many pets and their owners as possible. The group has been steadily investing millions of dollars in a diverse set of early-stage pet care startups since it was founded in 2014.