Despite growing up hundreds of miles away in Michigan, something about Ames, Iowa always felt like home to Kristine Johansen. As a child, she would eagerly anticipate visits her grandparents’ farm on the outskirts of town, spending time with family – and the animals – in a place she had grown to love.
So when Johansen was faced with the decision of where to go to college, one school quickly rose to the top of her list: Iowa State University. With an interest in veterinary studies and a love for all things ISU, the choice was simple. After spending a little time on campus, Johansen took an interest in medical microbiology and shifted her focus away from veterinary science. The change sparked a journey that led her around the country and right back to Ames.
Innovative New Role
In her new role as a member of the Economic Development and Industrial Relations (EDIR) team at the university, Johansen is working with businesses large and small, sharing her love for all things ISU while getting the word out about the incredible innovations happening at Iowa State. Among her primary roles as the “front door” to innovators in the biotech industry, is making connections between what’s happening in the marketplace and what’s being developed in labs across Iowa State.
She began in the newly-formed EDIR in August 2014 – she had previously worked for nearly a decade in ISU’s Technology Transfer office – and says every day brings something new.
“It’s a really exciting time to be here,” Johansen says. “Iowa State is growing and that is pushing us to develop an increased emphasis on supporting innovation in the state. I’m amazed daily at the things happening in Iowa, generally, and at Iowa State, specifically. I love sharing this high level innovation and making connections among those who can take it to the next level. I relish the role of being one of the ones spreading the word.”
While Johansen doesn’t work solely with biotech firms, it is where her strengths lie. After earning her Bachelors degree in microbiology and Masters degree in immunobiology at Iowa State, Johansen completed her PhD in microbiology at the University of Missouri. From there she moved into a post doctorate position at the University of Colorado Health Sciences.
In that position, Johansen studied how bacteria caused disease, identifying how enzymes may play a role in inflammation in a host animal. The goal was to find early markers for intervention. It wasn’t long before Johansen’ practical skills in the lab made her a recruitment target of start-up firms looking to bring microbiological products to the market.
Johansen’ first stop in the start-up world was with a company called Xtrana. As a senior scientist, Johansen worked to develop an interface to test for food and environmental pathogens.
“It was a novel application in that it allowed for on-site detection of these pathogens,” Johansen says. “To that point, this type of testing required that samples be taken to a lab for processing. This was a much quicker test and was fully integrated right there in the field.”
As Xtrana continued to advance products, Johansen had the opportunity to wear a number of hats. From writing grant applications to brainstorming practical applications for products, she recognizes the value of her experience.
“When you’re at a tiny company, you get to wear a lot of different hats,” she says. “In that position, I got hands on experience in commercializing products and preparing them for market.”
Leaving the Lab
After Xtrana, Johansen worked in another emerging business, continuing to work as a scientist/grant writer/marketer and more.
Her work at Invenux involved screening and scoring a library of compounds with the highest probability of having practical application as pharmaceuticals for humans. In addition to developing proprietary drugs, the business model for Invenux included providing their knowledge to drug companies to assist them in the research and development process.
While the work was groundbreaking and Johansen relished the opportunity to put her skills as a scientist to work, in the back of her mind, Ames was always calling. So when a position opened in the Technology Transfer office at Iowa State, she jumped at the chance to make a return “home.”
“I was completing my MBA at the time and the job seemed to offer practical experience where I could apply what I was learning,” Johansen says. “I felt like it was the type of position where I could use my past success in writing grants to assist other businesses.
“It was a deliberate decision to get out of the lab.”
It was also a deliberate decision to get back to Ames.
“We were looking to get back to the Midwest, and having the opportunity to return to Ames felt like a homecoming,” Johansen says. “We now live on the farmstead my grandparents owned just outside of Boone.”
Coming Full Circle
It was that farm that introduced Johansen to science.
“That piqued my interest in veterinary science,” she says. “They had livestock, corn, soybeans, everything. I knew from a young age that I wanted to do something that involved ag science.”
In the Technology Transfer office, Johansen was a key member of the team pushing ag science products to market. Her primary duties included helping evaluate invention disclosures and working to develop marketing campaigns for products available for licensing. The goal was to take inventions created at the university and get them to market. Johansen worked on more than 300 projects between 2005 and 2014.
“It was great experience,” she says. “I had the opportunity to work across the university.”
In her current position, Johansen works across the university… and across the state.
Johansen works in tandem with Bill Adamowski to provide a coordinated “front door” for industry to access the services, students and professionals at Iowa State. The effort is aimed at making it easy for industry to find support at the university to address challenges, while increasing the likelihood that research at Iowa State can find practical application in the marketplace.
“I really enjoy getting to know about the breadth and depth of innovation,” Johansen says. “There is a lot of exciting stuff going on here at Iowa State and in Iowa as a whole. It is nice to share that knowledge with a variety of stakeholders both inside the university and throughout the state.
Johansen says she is motivated to continue to increase the profile of Iowa State as a global leader in ag sciences while working with businesses in the state to create an “environment of innovation.”
“It’s a really exciting time to be here,” she says. “Just to be on the forefront of growing and developing an increased emphasis on partnering with the corporate leaders in the state is an incredible experience. I’m amazed at the work that is going on here at Iowa State and I love sharing that.
“It’s challenging to fit the pieces together and identify synergies that both advance research and offer commercialization opportunities,” she continues. “We are putting those pieces together better than ever now.”
While sharing those incredible things with the world.
“We tend to be a little too modest here,” Johansen says, “and I relish the role of being able to get out there and spread the word.”