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Tech Tour Day Seven: Grand Tech At Grand Valley

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Tetra 's Mark Gurney. (c)  Adam Bird Photographer. Used with permission.

Tetra ‘s Mark Gurney. (c) Adam Bird Photographer. Used with permission.

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GRAND RAPIDS — And the 2012 Great Lakes Innovation and Technology Report Tech Tour winner for packing the most information into a 3 1/2-hour visit is…

Well, the Tech Tour still has two more stops, but it’s going to be hard to beat what I saw at Grand Valley State University’s Grand Rapids campus Wednesday morning.

The topics ran the gamut at this fast-growing state university, one of several state schools created in 1964, from the health of the Great Lakes and its fisheries to wind energy to app development to the incubation of some really interesting businesses.

Heck, they’re even keeping bees — for science.

My visit began with Richard Rediske, professor of water resources at Grand Valley’s Annis Water Resources Institute in Muskegon.

Grand Valley has run a water resource research organization since the 1990s, and opened the 24,500-square-foot Annis Institute in 2001. A second building of 14,800 square feet to add to the institute is scheduled to open in 2013.

Rediske’s research focuses on three areas — fish contamination, algae blooms and the BioSand water filter.

“We’re grinding up fish and testing them for things there is public health advisories for, and also new chemicals people are concerned about,” Rediske said. “All of our inland lakes are contaminated with mercury from atmospheric deposition. We have consumption advisory in place. It’s not necessarily adults that have a problem, it’s children and women of childbearing age. They are much more sensitive than we are.”

Rediske also researches the harmful algal blooms that occasionally plague the Great Lakes: We know they are increasing, as the climate gets a little warmer, we should be anticipating a few more.” What’s more interesting to Rediske is trying to figure out why some algal blooms spew lots of toxic chemicals, while others don’t.

And he’s also researching the BioSand filter, a non-electric water filter being marketed in developing nations by Triple Quest, a consortium of Cascade Engineering, Dow Chemical Co. and Amway Corp. He’s visited Africa and Haiti to help improve the filter’s performance.

And, he teaches watershed management and green chemistry.

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Next up was an old pal, Arn Boezaart, director of GVSU’s Michigan Alternative and Renewable Energy Center, which also happens to be in Muskegon.

These days, Boezaart said, the MAREC is continuing its Lake Michigan Offshore Wind Assessment Project, for which it issued a preliminary data summary in June.

“We are out in Lake Michigan measuring wind, 35 miles out, dead center in the middle of Lake Michigan between Muskegon and Milwaukee,” Boezaart said.

Besides validating laser technology as a way to measure wind, the big news from the effort is that “once you get to a certain height, the wind doesn’t get any better.” Wind speeds at 150 meters are only a little better than wind speeds 75 meters up, which means wind power generation in the middle of the lake might require only the shorter towers.

The latest state of the art is to have wind generators on floating platforms much like oil rigs rather than anchoring them permanently to the lake bottom.

MAREC is also working on filling its incubator space.

I met with one of those tenants, Chad Lawie, whose LongerDays.com is turning the tables on Indian and Chinese outsourcing.

“We make a business owner’s day longer by taking the busywork out of their day and allowing them to get more done,” Lawie said., “Using remote technology, we can take the needs of businesses all over the world, aggrregate them, and hire people to do them full time in Muskegon.”

Among the services offered are secretarial, telephone reception, Web design, graphic design, Power Point design for speeches, order fulfillment and ghostwriting.

The company currently has 17 employees and is hiring.

Among the more unusual projects taken on by the company so far: helping a pastor write speeches, helping a marriage advice columnist and helping with customer support for the clothing line of the music group LMFAO.

Lawie said most of his customers find him through Googling the search term virtual employee.

The company sounds pretty unusual, but one gets the impression Lawie’s a pretty unusual guy, given that his background includes traveling the world on a 35-foot sailboat.

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Next up was a visit with Charlie Standridge, assistant dean of Grand Valley’s Padnos College of Engineering and Computing, recently recognized by the National Academy of Engineering as one of 29 “examplar” programs in the practice of engineering, mostly for its academic strength combined with how integrated it is with local industry.

The Padnos College currently has abot 800 students, up 60 percent of the the past two years.

“A lot of the interest is in the new undergraduate major and graduate emphasis in biomedical engineering,” Standridge said, which includes fields such as “medical device design, electrical engineering including image processing, and some biomechanics as well.”

Along with its work on Great Lakes wind power, the Padnos College is also a partner with the Mineta National Transportation Consortium at San Jose State, studying the remanufacturing and recyclling of bus batteries. They’re working with a Holland firm, Sybesma Electronics, on this project.

The Padnos College has also been involved in several individual projects in biomedical applicaitons, including building a modified Barbie electric car for a young girl with spina bifida, and building a riding lawn mower controlled by sip-and-puff movements of the mouth and lungs so a paraplegic could mow his lawn. Not only that, but Grand Valley students are busily turning a faculty member’s 1999 Subaru into an electric vehicle.

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Next, a visit from the West Michigan Science and Technology Initiative’s Rich Cook. This life sciences business incubator sits atop Grand Valley’s Cook-DeVos Center for Health Sciences at 301 Michigan St. NE in Grand Rapids’ billion-dollar Medical Mile of medical research and practice.

“We’ve made the transition from working hard to fill the incubator in the first five years to being an incubator people graduate from,” Cook said.

A relatively new tenant has the chance to do some really groundbreaking work. Mark Gurney said his Tetra Dicsovery Parnters is working on “a new biochemical pathway to change how the brain processes information. We augment signaling in the pathway.” That could lead to better treatments for traumatic brain injury and Alzheimer’s disease. The company has received a $12 million grant for its work from the National Institutes of Health.

Gurney, a California native who did his graduate work at CalTech and was on the faculty of the University of Chicago and Northwestern University medical schools, said he’s impressed with WMSTI.

“I’ve operated in several incubators and visited many others, adn what’s unique about WMSTI is that it’s embedded within the cellular and molecular biology department of Grand Valley, so there’s shared equipment and shared labs with faculty, and that’s critically important for startups,” he said. “Every dollar you have, you want to invest in your projects, not your infrastructure.”

It’s also helpful that WMSTI is only a short walk to Spectrum Health hospitals, the Van Andel Institute and the Michigan State University medical school.

The compounds being developed by Tetra help with injuries to the forebrain, which is the so-called “executive function” of the brain, including personality, learning, memory, impulsivity, and planning and sequencing of tasks. They’re now being tested in animals and “we’re seeing very encouraging data,” Gurney said. Human trials, he said, could start within a year.

Gurney is also using Kalamazoo’s Southwest Michigan Innovation Center for some of its chemiscla research.

Gurney also likes the Great Lakes location for his hobbies — offshore sailboat racing (his boat, Buzz, won its class this year in the Chicago-to-Mackinac race) and trout fishing.

“I think West Michigan has a nice combination,” Gurney said. “It’s a nice place to live, it has a business friendly environment and an infrastructure that supports life sciences research.”

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My next visit was with Ed Aboufadel, chair of the mathematics department at Grand Valley State, who’s been interested in a type of math called wavelets since the FBI began using it in the early 1990s to compress fingerprint data files, back when “computers were a lot slower and storage a lot more expensive. So I made the topic accessible to undergrads and started doing research with wavelets.”

Year by year, Aboufadel’s summer classes in the Grand Valley Research Experiences for Undergraduates program have had fun with wavelets — figuring out ways to hide messages in images, reading CAPTCHA codes automatically, detecting airplanes in aerial photograhs, determining whether handwriting was real or a forgery.

But in 2011, Aboufadel read about an innovation Web site called Innocentive, whcih works with people who want problems solved by math. The city came up with the idea of having an app on a smartphone that would combine the accelerometers on smartphones in cars, along with GPS location and time stamp, to determine the location of potholes. The first prize was $25,000, nothing to sneeze at.

So last June, his Research Experiences for Undergraduates class got busy with wavelets, which are essentially functions that represent an image using less data space than the image itself. The key to the app’s design, Aboufadel said, was making it “like a vote,” in which individual entries of a pothole might be ignored, but similar but not quite exactly the same entries from a bunch of people would be counted.

In August, they submitted a 15-page paper plus C++ code and output from test data to the competition. And in December, Aboufadel said with a chuckle, “I got an email basically saying ‘You Are A Winner!'”

There were actually three winners, he said — the others were “a weird shadowy hacker group and a reclusive retired engineer in California.” So his team got $9,000, still nothing to sneeze at.

The only downside is that the city of Boston owns the app — “that was part of the deal,” Aboufadel said — so only they can license it.

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By this point it was late morning and I was pretty much overwhelmed, but the last visit was still a blast.

Nothing technical or heavy. Indeed sweetness itself — honey, to be exact.

Grand Valley has established a Beekeeping Club, and I met with Jennifer Holt, a senior liberal studies major, who started it.

Holt wrote a grant request for the club at the behest of one of her professors, Annemarie Fauvel, who keeps bees on her property.

“I went into her hive with her and kind of caught the buzz,” Holt said. And Grand Valley’s Sustainable Community Development Initiative came through with a $2,500 grant to cover the cost of bees, two hives and five bee suits.

Holt said there was concern at Grand Valley about keeping bees on campus, based on potential problems with students who are allergic to bee stings. For that reason, the university’s two hives are kept in a rather remote part of Grand Valley’s Holland campus, adjacent to city of Holland’s Van Raalte Farm Park.

The club has grown from four people during its first year to “10 or 12 this year and still growing,” Holt said.

Now, Grand Valley engineering and computer science students have been brought into the project, building a solar-powered scale that has been installed under one of the hives, allowing remote tracking of the weight of honey production.

This year’s honey was sold, with proceeds going to the Beekeeping Club. A gallon went to the Winchester, an upscale Grand Rapids restaurant.

In recent years there’s been global concern about mass beehive die-offs, which could be a real problem, since about a third of the food we eat depends on bees for pollination and production. But Holt said there have been no major problems yet for Grand Valley’s hives from the combination of parasites and pollution thought to be behind the deaths. However, there was trouble with Michigan’s crazy 2012 weather — the bees emerged in 80-degree March weather ready to go, but many died in hard freezes in April.

You can track Grand Valley’s bees at www.gvsu.edu/honeybees. There’s also a bee blog.

The club’s other leader, Wendel Kane — who unfortunately couldn’t make the interview Wednesday — is starting a long-term projects correlating honey production with the relative abundance of different types of flowers in nearby fields.

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So, see what I mean? What a ridiculous abundance of cool technology. A bunch of business incubators with groundbreaking discoveries, cool basic research, and hands-on experiences for undergraduates you don’t always find in bigger schools. Grand Valley really impressed.

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