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Tech Tour Day Seven: WMU Is Wonderful

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The College of Engineering and Appled Sciences at Western Michigan University. WMU photo.

The College of Engineering and Appled Sciences at Western Michigan University. WMU photo.

Michigan has four public universities named in the top tier in the annual collegiate rankings of U.S. News and World Report.

I’m betting you can name the first three.

I’m also betting most people can’t name the fourth.

That’s one of the many reasons I always put Western Michigan University on my list of schools to visit every autumn for the Great Lakes Innovation and Technology Report’s Fall Tech tour. This is a school that does amazing work in a lot of areas, but frequently labors in the shadows of Michigan higher education’s Big Three.

My Western Wednesday started over breakfast at Rykse’s Restaurant in Oshtemo (and trust me, take any excuse to go to Rykse’s if you’re in the area) with Dan Litynski, the retired Army brigadier general who’s now WMU’s vice president for research.

Litynski said the university is wrapping up a strategic plan to increase its research efforts. Though the plan is not yet final, Litynski said he has developed several thematic areas where the university wants to concentrate its research efforts. Among them: Medical, based on the WMU School of Medicine, funded by a $100 million private gift, which will come on line in 2014; education, based on WMU’s legacy as a normal school and a leader in training teachers in science, technology, engineering and math; and sustainability, based on the school’s long track record there.

The medical research will encompass a wide swath, from medical devices to the school’s nationally ranked programs in speech pathology and audiology.

Western is also close to submitting a request to fund a $100 million interdisciplinary science research center, Litynski said.

Western’s faculty continues to churn out inventions, Litynski said. The school has now topped 100 invention disclosures since it established a formal office to handle them in 2005.

Western has been averaging $34 million a year in sponsored research in recent years, this year topping that a bit at $35 million. Part of Litynski’s task is to keep that number growing.

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From Rykse’s it was on to WMU’s amazing Parkview Campus, the $73 million, 343,000-square-foot home of its College of Engineering and Applied Sciences. You can’t call an 8-year-old building new any more. But the cool thing you can say about this one is that after eight years of the landscaping growing in, it looks as if it’s always been here, like it grew naturally out of the rolling West Michigan fields.

There, I met first with Massood Zandi Atashbar,  Professor and Director of the Center of Excellence for Advanced Smart Sensors and Structures in WMU’s Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering. And he showed me his cyborg beetles of doom.

No, really. Well, maybe not the doom part, although a European Wall Street Journal blogger certainly had as much fun with this as I did. http://blogs.wsj.com/tech-europe/2011/09/06/giant-nuclear-mutant-cyborg-insects-of-doom/?mod=google_news_blog

Atashbar and colleagues at the University of Michigan have figured out a way to harvest electricity from the wing beats of a large beetle by putting springs on the beetle. That energy could be used to power a spy camera, Atashbar said. (The original research challenge, funded by the Defense Department, was figure out an unmanned aerial vehicle that didn’t require a battery. Guess a beetle qualified.)

On a somewhat less whimsical note, Atashbar is also working on elecrochemical sensors, essentially a lab on a chip to detect pollution at very low levels. They’re also working on pressure, temperature and chemical monitors that communicate wirelessly yet require no battery. And he’s working on sponsored research from the steam-handling equipment company Armstrong International of Three Rivers on an acoustic diagnostic device of wear and tear on steam traps. (Problems in those traps are currently diagnosed by having an old steam trap hand go out to the plant site and listen to them. Seriously.) And he’s working on a visual detector for pollutants like mercury cadmium — a lab on a chip that will change color in their presence.

Like I said, amazing stuff.

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Over in the other end of the engineering building, I met with William Liou, director of WMU’s Center for Advanced Vehicle Design and Simulation (CAViDS) and the  CAViDS Hybrid Electric Applied Research Lab (CHEAR). (Yes, that’s an acronym with an acronym in it. Go up another two or three levels and you’d qualify for the military.) The CHEAR lab is a major testing center for batteries and how they couple with motors and other power electronics. It was developed in conjunction with Eaton Corp., the Cleveland-based manufacturer with a major truck powertrain testing and engineering center a few miles up I-94 from Kalamazoo in Galesburg.

I also talked with Liou and a couple of colleagues on a new project funded by the U.S. Army’s Tank Automotive Research, Development and Engineering Command called “condition based maintenance” — in other words, fixing automotive components just before they break, not according to a fixed schedule. But how do you know they’re just about to break? Liou, WMY associate professor Muralidhar K. Ghantasala and professor Janos L. Grantner showed me — a tiny piece of metal that looks like part of the world’s smallest picket fence that can measure invisible stresses and strains that are about to make a part go kerflooey.

The fatigue and crack sensors were used on a Hummer H1 in an Army-sponsored test. They also have applications in civil engineering — like bridge monitoring.

The team is also working on technology for oil condition monitoring — again, so you can change the oil when it really needs it, not according to a set schedule that may on the one hand waste oil and on the other hand permit preventable engine damage.

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Then it was back to Western’s main campus and Haenicke Hall, to the genial Karim Essani, professor of biological sciences, a virologist and cancer researcher, Essani received a $400,000 grant earlier this year from the National Cancer Institute, part of the National Institutes of Health, to develop a new treatment for colorectal cancer using viruses to attack cancer cells without harming normal cells.

Essani said there are perhaps 10 companies and 20 laboratories like his working on virotherapy. The treatment concept holds great promise in that it would target only cancer cells, not normal cells — eliminating many of the miserable side effects of chemotherapy.

“In order to be really successful in treating cancer, you target either molecules or processes which are unique in the parasite but absent the host,” Essani said. “That’s very difficult with cancer because cancer is so similar to normal cells, so everything you do to target cancer cells results in massive side effects. Viruses have evolved over billions of years to do just that, target specific cells. For instance, HIV targets only T-1 helper cells.”

Essani said he plans to teach the viruses to target only cancer cells. He wouldn’t say exactly how for competitive reasons. He’s using monkey pox as a vector because, Essani said, it’s a minor disease very few people in the United States and Europe have been exposed to it.

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My day at Western wrapped up with Jack Luderer, associate dean for research at the School of Medicine. WMU has folded its wildly successful Bioscience Research and Commercialization Center, which Luderer formerly led, into the med school.

Luderer said the BRCC helped a lot of former Pfizer researchers establish companies at the Southwest Michigan Innovation Center, a wet lab space in WMU’s technology park. 41n. dsalk  The BRCC is now under the auspices of WMU’s new School of Medicine.

The BRCC’s initial $10 million has funded around 30 companies, among them commercial successes like Proteos, Kalexsyn and CeeTox in Kalamazoo and Cytopherx in Ann Arbor. In August, WMU got $3.8 million from the state to launch BRCC II, which will look for mor biomedical success.

Luderer noted that unlike most government venture funds, 10 percent of its returns go back to the state of Michigan.

Like everyone else connected with the medical school, also, he wouldn’t tell me where the dang thing is going to be built — downtown, east side, west side or wherever. Soon enough, I suppose, we’ll see.

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And so another fabulous day came to a conclusion on the Michigan high-tech road. I can’t say much about Kalamazoo that hasn’t been said before — it’s a pretty place full of hard-working people with a lot of education and skill. It’s one of only a few metropolitan areas in the state where the local economy is growing substantially, and with these folks at work it’s easy to see why. Thursday’s tour stop: Michigan State!

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