Educator, scientist, entrepreneur Mark Cook dies at 61

Noted University of Wisconsin educator, scientist and entrepreneur Mark Cook dies at 61.

Mark Cook, a professor of animal science at the University of Wisconsin–Madison whose research yielded advances in human health and food production, died from complications of cancer at home Sept. 9.
With 20 patents, three startup companies and a strong record of involvement in university initiatives, Cook was not one to be hobbled by conventions, departmental boundaries or a “we can’t do that here” mindset. Through it all he maintained a dedication to teaching that extended to his department’s introductory course, Animal Science 101.

An avowed “chickenologist,” Cook was well-known in the poultry industry, says Daniel Schaefer, chair of Cook’s department and his friend for 17 years. “His discoveries and opinions were respected internationally. Even though he had no formal extension appointment, he was frequently called by poultry companies on nutrition or immunology questions.”

Cook earned a Ph.D. at Louisiana State University in 1982 while studying the relationship between pathogens, nutrition and the poultry immune system. At the University of Wisconsin, his wide-ranging interests and unstoppable curiosity found full expression in the entrepreneurial activity he pursued with a passion to make a difference in the world.

His discoveries were surprising and displayed immense intellectual clarity, but he realized that they could only reach their full benefit by being commercialized.

In 2005, Cook and colleagues created the spinoff company Isomark to advance a technology that promises a much earlier, hands-off detection of infection, based solely on measuring isotopes in the breath.

In 2015, Cook helped form Ab E Discovery to advance the finding that chickens can produce a protein that blocks a signal used by bacteria to shut down the host immune system. The protein is grown in eggs and sprayed on animal feed to replace antibiotics.

More recently, Cook’s interest in novel animal byproducts spawned an effort to develop an oil used by birds to preen their feathers as a fish food additive. The oil, called cosajaba by Cook and his collaborators, seems to dampen the stress response in fish — a potential solution to a common problem in aquaculture.

Cook’s biggest commercial success to date was work on conjugated linoleic acid, a fatty acid that became a dietary supplement marketed for reducing body fat while maintaining lean muscle mass. Cook developed CLA in the 1990s in conjunction with Michael Pariza, then a professor of food microbiology and toxicology. The alliance grew quickly, based on the accessibility that seemed a Cook hallmark.

A second pillar of Cook’s productivity was a new model of research funding, says Schaefer. “Instead of having the program depend on federal grants, he emphasized patenting and royalties. Mark became dissatisfied with the fact that once he published a discovery, it became public knowledge, and therefore was no longer useful to an entrepreneur or business” because it could not be protected by patent. “He was determined to transfer his intellectual property to WARF (Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation), and thereby protect the usefulness of the information for licensees, who could put the discovery into commercial practice.”

Those interests were the logical groundwork for the 2014 Discovery to Product initiative, in whose formation Cook was instrumental. D2P is a collaboration between UW–Madison and WARF that advises and supports business ideas from faculty, staff and students.  Fifteen businesses have been created from the 24 projects funded by D2P; other projects are in the pipeline.

John Biondi, D2P’s founding director, calls Cook “one of those rare individuals who is not only at the top of his game academically, but is a triple threat. He’s an excellent teacher and professor, an incredibly insightful and clever researcher, and was able to turn that research into entrepreneur endeavors at an amazing rate. By looking outside of academia to commercial endeavors, he was able to shine a light down both those paths.”

Beyond the track record of success, Cook had other ways to encourage creativity and collaboration, said Biondi. “He was very mild-mannered, humble, self-effacing. You would never know he was so accomplished. He made no attempt to create a cult of personality. It was really the opposite. He worked with people on projects as an equal as opposed to a demigod, yet he was exceptional for his ability to innovate, to develop these things out of his lab.”

Amid his wide scientific, entrepreneurial and industry interests, Cook devoted more than a decade to teaching the introductory animal science course. “He taught it for the long haul, with a commitment to the freshmen in the class,” said Schaefer, “and he taught it with enthusiasm and rigor. He was highly regarded by those students.”

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