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Tragedy Unearths A Lost Invention

Eight-month-old Cheng Aobing, suffering from kidney stones, receives medical treatment at a hospital in Hefei, China. © REUTERS/Stringer (CHINA)

In Fall 2008, the world watched in horror as news broke that the number of infants in China sickened with kidney problems expanded daily. By the end of 2008, there were over 300,000 victims, with six infants dying from kidney damage, and a further 860 babies hospitalised.

The cause of the epidemic had been Chinese milk companies lacing dairy products with melamine, a dangerous toxic chemical, as a way of increasing the apparent protein content of those products. With widespread panic in China over the consumption of dairy products, the World Health Organization called on researchers to develop a rapid test for melamine.

It transpired that the University of Minnesota had, several years prior, developed an enzyme able to detect melamine. Though the Chinese milk scare in 2008 was only the most recent of several melamine epidemics, the enzyme had sat in the university labs with little awareness of its commercial potential. In the wake of the Chinese milk scare, the University uncovered and sold the enzyme to BIOO Scientific Corp, who quickly commercialized the invention. Nevertheless, this was still too late for some of the infants.

Our Mission

Gatorade was invented at the University of Florida, and is named after the university’s athlectic teams, the Florida Gators. © DigitalTrends

Every year, governments across the world fund academic institutions to conduct over a $100 billion in basic and applied research. The potential for commercializing this research is still largely untapped. The impact this research could have on improving lives and society is still largely unrealized.

PreScouter’s mission is to expose the world to the innovations developed at universities. In doing so, we endeavor to increase commercialization of research from academia to industry. We do this by increasing the transparency of research conducted in academia.

Our Story

Northwestern University Arch. © Northwestern University

PreScouter was founded in 2010 at Northwestern University, USA. The initial need for the service had been sparked by the struggles of a Northwestern alumnus – an R&D Director at a medical device company – in accessing university research.

By Fall 2010, three companies – Kraft Foods, UOP (Honeywell) and DSM – had committed to conducting pilots of the service. PreScouter’s founding team of graduate students at Kellogg, as well as in Materials Science and Chemistry, worked with these clients through early 2011 to develop the PreScouter service.

As PreScouter’s founders began graduating in Summer 2011, the company was spun out of Northwestern. The company established an office in downtown Evanston, Illinois, on the edge of Northwestern’s campus. By Summer 2012, PreScouter had grown its roster of clients to almost two dozen, in fields as varied as consumer electronics and oral health.

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