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Sparta Alumni Turns International Internship into a Book and Biotech Start Up

Sparta Alumni Turns International Internship into a Book and Biotech Start Up
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Brett Cotten
Credits: Provided
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Brett Cotten in the incubator in Dublin
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Credits: Provided

SPARTA, NJ – Sparta High School graduate is exploring fields in science that are so new there are not yet agreed upon names. Called “clean meat” and “cellular agriculture” and “synthetic biology,” Brett Cotten is combining his studies in Biochemistry, Molecular Biology and Entrepreneurship to develop a new business.

In May Cotten graduated from Penn State armed with more than a degree. He had an internship abroad through a program called Sage Corps.

“It is not easy for students in STEM to do a study abroad,” Cotten said. The program pairs students with startups around the world. Cotten did his internship in Dublin, in a “three story building that was an accelerator for startups- across the street from the Guinness brewery.”

In Dublin Cotten worked on a meditation app for a biotech start up called Think Biosolution. He and another American student Max formed a CEO/CTO team to develop products that would make use of technology to allow users to track and visualize their heart rate and other biometrics. The app used technology already available on mobile phones, including the camera, facial recognition software Bluetooth linking and more.

Cotten said he had the opportunity to incorporate information he learned in his Entrepreneurship and Innovation program at Penn State.

Together with 17 other Sage Corps interns, Cotten said the experience is good for anyone, even if they do not intend to work with a start up, “because of the mind set you develop in that entrepreneurial atmosphere.”

Back from Ireland, he is writing a book and looking to launch a startup of his own, with a professor from University of Pennsylvania. He said he is just about to finish the manuscript and enter into the editing phase.

The startup is to be in the field of synthetic biology. Specifically, Cotten is looking to create fish tissue for consumption. This is currently being done on a wider scale with beef; meat without the animal, according to Cotten.

Cotten said traditional animal agriculture is one of the leading contributors to climate change, “more than transportation.” Products are about “two to five years from being on shelves,” Cotten said. So called “clean meat” or plant based protein, creates meat without additives, hormones, antibiotics.

Beef and dairy tissue research is further down the line than fish tissue because of interest from the medical field, according to Cotton. He is looking to develop recipes to create seafood.

“There are a lot of people who don’t eat beef but eat fish, pescatarians,” Cotten said. “This will provide options for them.”

Cotten pointed to a quote from Winston Churchill, “We shall escape the absurdity of growing a whole chicken in order to eat the breast or wing, bygrowingthese parts separately under a suitable medium,” having foretold the future in 1931.

While Cotten acquired many of the pieces of the puzzle from his studies at Penn State, they were brought together in his Ireland internship experience.

“Especially as a STEM student, it is extremely tough to find opportunities to do study abroad,” Cotten said. “Interning abroad with Sage Corps gives you a leg up on your peers. Having entrepreneurial mindset can give you a skill set that is useful in a big company or a startup.”

Sage Corps is the brain child of Matt Meltzer. A practicing attorney, the Chicago resident started the organization in 2013 to offer an international internship opportunity to American students.

“I had the good fortune to have first hand experience,” Meltzer said. “It worked for me and I want to give back.”

While in college Meltzer worked for a start up incubator in Buenos Aires. His vision allows students to do more than the traditional interns. “They have amazing experiences, working and living as young professionals,” Meltzer said. “They have to build and implement an idea and be ready to fix it if or when it fails.”

Sage Corps applicants are screened to ensure a good fit, not only with the international start ups but for the program as a whole. “We take 10 to 15 percent of people who apply,” Meltzer said. “They are really looking for students who want to participate for the right reason. It is not for students who just want to travel. They have to get up every day and go to work.”

With Sage Corps the students do not sit in a classroom but can get credit, according to Meltzer. Students do have the opportunity to explore and experience the culture on the weekends.

The program also brings in experts in the fields for discussions.

“Only .1 percent of American students will get global experience,” Meltzer said. “Those numbers tell me those who do step out are part of a unique club with global experience.”

He said when students return they are “blowing away recruiters with their experiences and anecdotes. It’s not just a semester abroad experience.”

The program began with five students and after five years has grown to more than 500 alumni. Sage Corps still relies on word of mouth. That is how Cotten found out about the program.

Having grown, Sage Corps has “pulled students from 125 universities.” The organization works with the schools to get credit for the students according to Meltzer.

The programs support all types of majors, not just STEM but “all of the verticals you would need to run a company.” There are different time frames available, including a semester and summer and work.

There are fees for participation that covers housing, travel, meals, staff, security, health and safety and professional events. Scholarships are available. “A significant percentage are not paying the full amount,” Meltzer said.

“We are looking for students who are willing and able to take on responsibility,” Meltzer said.
Cotten is proof of how that model works.

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