Mark Cook, 61, 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 on September 9, 2017.
An avowed “chickenologist,” Cook was well known in the poultry industry, said 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 UW, 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. He had more than 20 patents and three startup companies.
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. Given the drive to replace those ubiquitous drugs in the meat industry, Ab E could be poised for rapid growth.
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.
Emphasis on patents, royalties
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 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.
In later years, Cook devoted some of his boundless energy to academic affairs, culminating in leadership of the University Committee, a key element of campus faculty governance.
Cook is survived by his wife, Ellen, described as “the love of my life” in a parting letter to friends and colleagues, and by three children, Lynn, LeighAnn and Crague, and their families.