UC San Diego Team Wins National Entrepreneurship Challenge in Nanotechnology for Second Year
With mentorship from QI and Jacobs School of Engineering, the team found a way to reduce pesticide waste
With the help of mentors from UC San Diego’s Qualcomm Institute and Jacobs School of Engineering, postdoctoral fellow Ivonne Gonzalez-Gamboa of the university’s Materials Research Science and Engineering Center has won the national Nanotechnology Entrepreneurship Challenge (NTEC), making this the second consecutive year that a UC San Diego entry secured first place.
The NTEC competition invites participants from 16 sites around the U.S. to propose a product with societal impact and to map out the process of building a start-up. Inspired by her work in the lab of Professor Nicole Steinmetz of Jacobs School’s Department of NanoEngineering, Gonzalez-Gamboa proposed arming plant viruses with pesticides for a more efficient and less wasteful pesticide delivery system.
In addition to winning first place in the competition overall, Gonzalez-Gamboa was named the recipient of the 2023 NTEC Diversity Award, which funds future ventures into entrepreneurship. She was mentored by the UC San Diego Qualcomm Institute’s (QI) Program Manager for Education and Outreach, Yves Theriault, and Steinmetz.
“We need more entrepreneurs,” said Theriault. “The U.S. economy is highly dependent on innovation. The mission of NTEC is to bring that [value] to light.”
Turning Viruses into Trojan Horses
When Gonzalez-Gamboa learned about NTEC, she’d just met with several friends specializing in agricultural consulting to discuss the problem of pests.
According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, pests destroy 20-40% of the world’s crops annually. Pesticides are costly, however, and many fail to penetrate beyond the soil’s top layers to reach the roots, where microscopic worms called nematodes cause damage and deform or kill plants.
Gonzalez-Gamboa thought the Steinmetz lab’s approach of “repurposing” viruses by rendering them inert and reloading their empty shells with other substances might prove helpful. Already, previous studies had shown that the particular vector the lab used, a mild plant virus approved by the Environmental Protection Agency, slipped easily through soil.
When Theriault suggested she join NTEC, it gave Gonzalez-Gamboa the opportunity to develop this seed of an idea into a business proposal.
“We’re trying to change viruses’ image from ‘foe’ to ‘friend’ by using them to our advantage,” said Gonzalez-Gamboa.
Gonzalez-Gamboa’s friends became her formal advisors, connecting her with potential consumers to identify needs and sharing insight into the regulations behind the nanotechnology industry. Steinmetz, who runs her own startup, helped Gonzalez-Gamboa narrow down potential pests and a landscape to target.
“Given its success in fields like medicine, we are poised to make an impact on food security with nanotechnology,” said Steinmetz. “Biological and environmentally friendly technologies are likely particularly powerful. Plant viruses evolved to be transported through plants and soil—it makes sense to give them a new life and repurpose them for agricultural nanotechnology.”
For NTEC, Gonzalez-Gamboa’s proposed design suggests adapting the Steinmetz lab’s method of “defanging” the test virus by removing its RNA, the genetic material it uses to spread and infect plants, and instead filling its protein shell with pesticides. With the support of Theriault’s business savvy and consistent feedback, she developed a business model to prepare for her final pitch to the judging committee.
Support for Entrepreneurs in Academia
Gonzalez-Gamboa’s business canvas suggests two possible means of delivering pesticides to crops. Farmers can spray concentrated amounts of “repurposed” viruses in a liquid or sprinkle them as a shelf-stable solid. The viruses would then drop through the soil to the roots, where their protein shells pose a tempting treat for nematodes.
With the remaining viruses degrading naturally as protein in the environment, Gonzalez-Gamboa’s solution provides an eco-friendly alternative to other nanoparticles put forward for pesticide delivery.
A committee of local businesspeople, organized by NTEC’s governing body, the National Nanotechnology Coordinated Infrastructure (NNCI), judged final presentations from participating NNCI satellite sites, including the San Diego Nanotechnology Infrastructure (SDNI) at QI’s Nano3—short for nanoscience, nanoengineering and nanomedicine—cleanroom facility.
Gonzalez-Gamboa plans to use NTEC’s $1,000 Diversity Award to fund time on Nano3’s high-powered microscopes, which will allow her to study the virus’s interactions with different soil samples at the nanoscale. This can help her tailor her approach for different crops and ecosystems.
Gonzalez-Gamboa says NTEC and the experience of mentoring under Theriault and Steinmetz have helped her in many ways, from embracing an entrepreneurial mindset to learning to pitch to various audiences. This month, she attends the TechConnect World Innovation Conference & Expo in Washington, D.C. to present her business canvas to venture capitalists and hopefully gain funds to take her idea to the next level.
Gonzalez-Gamboa is also in the process of applying for faculty positions. In a future faculty role, she hopes to encourage students to consider entrepreneurship and applied science as natural parts of their careers.
“I think as undergraduate or graduate students, we always think in one of two ways: we can go into either academia or industry,” said Gonzalez-Gamboa. “I think [entrepreneurship] needs to be incentivized. It’s good that there are competitions like this that get students involved.”
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