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Maple tree researcher recipient of 2022 NMSU Intellectual Property Award

  • By Cassie McClure
  • 575-312-3242
  • cassie@mcclurepublications.com
  • Apr 27, 2022
Two men shaking hands while holding a glass award.
Man holding an oversized check.

Rolston St. Hilaire, head of the Department of Plant and Environmental Science at New Mexico State University, is the 2022 recipient of the Intellectual Property Award, which is handed out by NMSU’s Arrowhead Center to honor NMSU faculty or staff who have developed intellectual property and demonstrated work to realize societal, industrial, and commercial benefits.

The Plant and Environmental Sciences department is housed in the College of Agricultural, Consumer and Environmental Sciences. St. Hilaire is also head of the Extension Plant Sciences department and a Regents professor. He first worked with maple trees while at Iowa State University.

“Throughout my horticultural education, which started at the University of Puerto Rico, I studied woody plants because of their allure,” St. Hilaire said. “The research lab I joined at Iowa State University worked on woody plants, and a few of their projects were conducted on maples. Along with the mentorship of my graduate adviser, I developed a doctoral research project on maples where I studied the physiology and genetic diversity of black maples and sugar maples. Maples fascinated me because there are so many different types of maples, and the fall colors of maples are brilliant.” 

St. Hilaire said when he joined NMSU in 1998, he envisioned replicating the brilliance of maples in the desert environment.

“While maples grow in the desert southwest, the research challenge was to find one that could grow well in a desert environment while producing the same fall colors I saw in Iowa,” he said. “The release of Mesa Glow bigtooth maple is the response to this challenge.”

The tree has been a growing success. The Mesa Glow has been sold in 20 states and two provinces in Canada. Commercial sales of the bigtooth maple began in 2016, and by 2021, have recorded a 496 percent increase in retail sales. While demand currently exceeds supply, this growth trend is expected to continue.

Kathryn Hansen, director and CEO of Arrowhead Center, said part of Arrowhead’s mission is to help take research done at NMSU to a product that might be seen in stores or a new service for a specialized industry.

“We wanted to recognize St. Hilaire’s work because it encompasses the development of his passion, and allows us to take the beauty and durability of our desert plants into other areas that could do well with enhancing drought-tolerant landscaping with that beauty,” Hansen said. “His work further exemplifies the power of public private partnerships for commercialization.”

St. Hilaire said the patent process enabled him to articulate the innovation and novelty embedded in his research.

“The patent process asks the inventor to show why this product is different from other existing products,” he said. “During our market discovery, I was able to see our competitors’ products, and I can truly say that ours is unique.”

Rolando Flores Galarza, dean of the College of ACES, said, “This award witnesses his exemplary hard work and dedication to the College of ACES and NMSU. It is well-deserved for his success.”

“As faculty work on their research projects, I encourage them to document the ideas and products that are unique and worthy of protection, and contact the NMSU IP office before they disclose in publications, to protect patentability if it exists,” St. Hilaire said.

“If it’s patented, it has been deemed novel and useful. If commercialized, the benefits are being realized by society or industry,” said Patricia Knighten, director of Innovation Commercialization at Arrowhead Center. “NMSU invests in patents for the purpose of commercializing and sharing the benefits, and the IP award is to recognize those whose hard work is doing exactly that.”

St. Hilaire, who said discovery can happen at any time, encourages reaching out even during the early stages of the research process.

“While conducting my doctoral research, I was having difficulty weighing leaves on the standard analytical balances, so I developed a little plastic stand that facilitated weighing leaves in an upright position rather flat on the balance,” he said. “Even then as a student, I mentioned that we could patent this unique invention.”

For information about technology commercialization at NMSU, contact Patricia Knighten at pmk@nmsu.edu or 505-918-5974.