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Tech Tour Day Six: Grand Tech At Grand Valley

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Syzygy Biotech CEO Barry D. Nowak in the lab where his DNA amplifier is made

Syzygy Biotech CEO Barry D. Nowak in the lab where his DNA amplifier is made

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It’s experienced explosive growth over the past 20 years, and it’s busily stamping its image all over West Michigan while helping the region diversify its economy.

It is Grand Valley State University, and it was Tuesday’s tour stop on Day Six of the Great Lakes Innovation and Technology Report’s Spring 2011 Tech Tour.

I actually started the day in Muskegon, then visited Grand Valley’s downtown Grand Campus, and ended the visit on the main campus in Allendale.

First thing, I met T. Arnold “Arn” Boezaart, director of the GVSU Michigan Alternative and Renewable Energy Center, a sparkling 25,000-square-foot, eight-year-old building on the shores of Muskegon Lake, on part of the former site of Continental Motors.

Boezaart said the center is also a tax-free SmartZone and currently has six companies being incubated there, all tied to renewable energy in one form or another. MAREC recently graduated its first company, Smart Vision Lights, a lighting firm that moved to its own building at 2359 Holton Road in Muskegon.

MAREC also has a new associate director for research and technology, Suresh Mani, a veteran of six years at the advanced battery technology company A123 and an industry consultant.

West Michigan has become home to huge battery industry plants in recent years, including JCI and LG in Holland and Fortu in Muskegon. Mani said MAREC sees an opening there: “We are developing relationships with Lakeshore Advantage in Holland and we’ve had conversations with big battery companies in the area and trying to figure out how we can be most helpful in making them successful.”

Several themes emerged, he said: “Things that came out, they’d like us to have a battery testing facility here, where individual cells can be tested for performance. They want help with manufacturing process improvement. And we plan to work with Western Michigan University on this — they have a coating line. Also they asked us to develop a certificate program for after bachelor’s degree in mechanical or electrical engineering or materials science in battery technology. We hope to add component manufacturing studies so students actually build a working battery.”

Boezaart said advanced energy storage is a natural fit for wind and solar power studies — it’s the only way they’ll ever work on a commercial scale. He said Grand Valley is working to add advanced energy storage to its curriculum, laboratories and factory hires.

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From MAREC it was a few miles up the coast of Muskegon Lake to visit an eight-ton, 20-by-10-foot boat-shaped research buoy that Grand Valley — along with partners University of Michigan and Michigan State University — plans to send out into Lake Michigan over the next year to measure wind patterns up to 150 meters above the water.

Al Iaonnangelo of Chantilly, Va.-based Catch The Wind Inc. said the key sensor uses infrared laser light that bounces off particles in the air and uses the Doppler effect to measure wind speed.

The buoy is powered primarily by solar panels, with a backup 1.5-kilowatt wind generator, and a backup backup diesel generator. The buoy packs 200 gallons of diesel fuel for this secondary backup. It communicates its data with the mainland in three ways too — cell phone, Iridium satellite phone and marine radio.

The buoy was built by Axys of Sidney, British Columbia, Canada. Final instrumentation and outfitting are being done on a “jackabarge,” a barge that has adjustable pilings so it can be placed in varying depths of water. Boezaart said it’s designed for the open ocean and can remain untended for as long as six months, gathering and transmitting data. Initially, the buoy will be tested just offshore of the MAREC. Then it will be placed four miles offshore to measure the wind. Next summer, officials plan to take it out to the middle of Lake Michigan, 30 miles or more from shore on either side, where there’s a natural plateau in the bottomland and the water is only about 130 feet deep — meaning wind turbines could be built there that no one on either shore could see.

But now the bad news — the state of Michigan has yanked $1.3 million in funding for the project after a lawsuit filed by ABATE, an organization of large industrial ratepayers in Michigan, challenged the law that the state used to find the funding. Boezaart said Grand Valley decided to press ahead with the project on the remaining $2 million in federal and private money while other funding is sought.

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Then it was over to Grand Rapids for a fascinating meeting at the West Michigan Science and Technology Initiative, a Grand Valley effort housed at its Cook-DeVos life science center atop the Medical Mile on East Michigan Street (or as it’s known colloquially, Pill Hill).

There, I met with an amazing life sciences company with the unpronounceable name, Syzygy Biotech. For the record, it’s “ziz-a-gee,” a Greek term for the alignment of three things, and the company is making, according to CEO Barry D. Nowak, “the biological equivalent of toner that let you make copies of DNA.”

Through a complex process, Syzygy is mass producing proteins that allow users to heat up DNA and make mass copies of it out of a tiny sample.

Why would you want to do that? A whole bunch of diagnostic tests. Nowak deadpanned: “Disease detection. Forensics. How much cancer was removed? Who’s your daddy? Are you the murderer? Are there Asian carp in the Great Lakes before we see a fish? Are the cows coming out of China mad? Do the chickens have the flu?” Or how about this, 10 years down the road: “Give them a piece of your DNA and they will grow the new organ you need.”

The company was formed in 2009 and moved into its space at WMSTI in 2010. It started selling early this year. So far the company has about 40 customers and has $40,000 in sales. Its plan next year is $2.4 million in sales. Nowak said he aims to be “the Perrigo of protein,” a reference to the West Michigan pharma firm that’s the world’s largest maker of generic and store-brand health products.

Nowak said he and three college buddies started the company after they spent a couple of years working for others, and “none of us were happy with our trajectories, so we decided to get together on a startup.”

More at www.syzygybiotech.com.

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From there, it was across downtown Grand Rapids to the Seidman College of Business and a meeting of Amando Chocko and Mike Morin of Momentum, an effort started by Amway heir Rick DeVos to invest in high-tech startups.

The program, now in its fourth year, takes up to five startup companies and invests $20,000 in each of them and gives them intensive monitoring with lots of programming and events.

Momentum culminates with a demo day, in which participants get to present to a roomful of investors and other important, critical viewers.

“We invest $20,000 in each of the companies and provide extensive mentoring and lots of programming and events,” Lee said.

Eight of the 11 companies that have passed though the program are still in business, and three have received follow-on funding.

“There’s still an investment gap statewide, much less West Michigan, for early stage pre-revenue company,” Morin said. “Our angel community behaves more similar to venture capital in terms of their attitude toward risk and their attitude toward time frames and financial reporting.”

Morin and Chocko are both veteran entrepreneurs, Morin in software and the Web and Chocko in services.

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My final stop of the day was with Johnathan Engelsma of the GVSU School of Computing, and his Mobile Applications and Services Lab.

The mission of the lab, he said, is simple: “We put our applications out in the wild and we let people use them.”

Apps now in the wild or close to it include Grand Access, which shows Grand Valley disabled students how to get around campus easily; ParaboliX, which turns math education about quadratic equations into a game; and GVSU Art, which provides an online catalog of the 10,000-plus pieces of art around Grand Valley’s campuses.

For Grand Access, Engelsma said Grand Valley graduate Jim Albright, who uses a wheel chair, spent an enbtire summer “literally measuring the width of every door, the height of every soap dispenser” all over campus.

ParaboliX, meanwhile, was the Masters thesis of Grand Valley graduate Alejo Montoya, who is now a game developer at Electronic Arts in Los Angeles.

More about these and other computing programs at http://masl.cis.gvsu.edu/.

Summed up Engelsma: “Mobile is not just the latest trend in computing. It’s changing everything in every field in every business.”

And Grand Valley seems to be right on top of it, as they are so many things. Congratulations to Grand Valley and to my host, Leah Zuber of GVSU News and Information Services, for a terrific day. Wednesday: On to the Broncos of Kalamazoo!

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