BSc Biochemistry and Human Physiology student and TURF Student Coordinator Michael Stark won first prize and an opportunity to travel to Germany in November 2021 for his presentation on "Breaking the wall on viral zoonoses in animal farming" pitch on the Falling Labs platform. As the first-place winner, Mr Stark won R 18 000 in prize money and an opportunity to present his pitch to a prestigious audience.
The Friedrich Naumann Foundation sent out a call for innovative ideas that showcase a breakthrough in science and society to be pitched in three minutes. The competition was open to students, entrepreneurs, early-career researchers and academics of all disciplines. The competitions focus was addressing SDG 9 (Industry, Innovation and Infrastructure).
Mr Stark was astounded and overwhelmed when they announced that he placed first in the competition. He shared that a quote from Steve Jobs came to mind when he found out that he won "The people who are crazy enough to think they can change the world are the ones who do",
"Winning this competition was a true validation that my company can make a difference in the animal farming sector and that hard work does pay off," he said.
Mr Stark's presentation focused on breaking the wall on viral zoonoses in animal farming inspired by his start-up synthetic biology company IMMUNOFEED which strives to prevent the rise of zoonotic viruses from intensive animal farming operations. IMMUNOFEED leverages the powers of molecular farming (biopharming) and artificial intelligence to predict the mutations a virus will acquire in its surface proteins and mass-produce a cheap edible duckweed (Lemna minor) vaccine that can easily, safely and inexpensively administered to a high density of animals before a spillover event can occur.
Image: Breaking the wall on viral zoonoses in animal farming
When Mr Stark was a young boy, he visited a pig and chicken farm on a school trip. He thought he would see a beautiful farm where animals were free to roam and indulge in luscious green grass; however, this was not the case. He was shocked when they arrived at the farm to see the animals stuffed inside warehouses and forced to live in overly crowded and unsanitary spaces.
"In 2009, I almost lost one of my family members to a virus known as swine flu (H1N1), and I remember watching the news where scientists stated that the origin of this virus was a pig farm. This showed me that these farms are not only a risk for the health of the animals within them but also humankind." He strived to positively impact the animal farming sector to make it safer for animals and humankind from that day onwards.
Mr Stark is not shy to highlight the Tuks Undergraduate Research Forum’s (TURF) role in his scientific career. "TURF has empowered me to become a better scientist and provided me with the relevant skills of how to conduct ground-breaking research", he shared. Through TURF, Mr Stark was able to create his research project focused on using a tumour starvation technique in conjunction with chemotherapy to treat breast cancer in 2019. Mr Stark was introduced to Scientist Prof Annie Joubert and Dr Michelle Visagie. They believed in his idea and offered him the opportunity to begin his research under their supervision.
"The University of Pretoria has played a major role in my academic career and has opened my eyes to the wonders of the natural world and sparked my love and understanding of biology", he added.