ANN ARBOR — It’s like drinking from the proverbial fire hose.
When I’m on my Fall Tech Tour around Michigan and I ask university tech transfer officials to see their four or five coolest “science projects” that have economic development potential, they always say they have so many it’s a tough choice.
But try to imagine the tough choices faced by the University of Michigan, which has a research budget of a staggering $1.2 billion-plus a year, consistently among the top five in the nation. How the heck do you pick?
Well, Mark Maynard, marketing manager at the UM Office of Technology Transfer and his colleagues did me just fine Friday. I got a 50,000-foot overview of what OTT is up to, and four absolutely amazing startups spun off from UM research.
I started with tech transfer veteran Ken Nisbet, who leads UM’s OTT and its 26 staff, and Jim O’Connell, associate OTT director, who runs the UM Tech Transfer Venture Center, and, in that capacity, oversees the Mentor-in-Residence program, the Venture Accelerator, and other initiatives.
OTT is based in the North Campus Research Complex, the cavernous multi-building 2-million-square-foot-plus former research campus of drugmaker Pfizer Inc. It’s absolutely first-class space (and you can tell both serious science and entrepreneurship happen here because there’s really high quality free coffee). A small part of the space is now the UM Venture Center Accelerator, a business incubator that is now close to full, aside from some of the wet lab space, and home to 19 companies.
“This is very expensive space, probably the best lab space in the Midwest, so we are subsidizing it so it’s only the most expensive lab space in Washtenaw County,” Nisbet said. “That way the private sector won’t think we’re pulling people away from them. You can’t get space like this elsewhere.”
The way OTT works, Nisbet said, is “when a professor has an idea and it looks like it could be a company, we get involved with them to find what is the market need for such an idea, what are the best paths, what is the business model, and should it be a company … Our goal is to surround them with kindness, services and tough love, and move them along, and if they’re going to fail learn that early, and make them sustianable when they leave.”
UM now has available university funding to invest in startups, as well as access to state funding, which helps ideas bridge the chasm.
Not that they always work out the way the professor originally had in mind, Nisbet said. One company, Accuri Cytometers, was born out of a professor’s idea to use microfluidics to detect bacteria in machine tool fluid, which can make workers sick. The Detroit Three and the United Auto Workers were behind the original idea. Eventually, though, the business types who were leading the commercialization effort figured out that the idea wouldn’t work as an inexpensive way to detect nasty bugs on factory floors — but it would work as a desktop cell analyzer, “a low cost way of analyzing bugs period, so instead of a quarter million dollar machine, we can make one for $25,000,” Nisbet said. Accuri Cytometers was born, and detailed cell analysis went from room-size to desk size, and the cost fell by 90 percent.
Nisbet said UM has made use of its Midwestern location to compete with other top entrepreneurial spinout schools like MIT in the East and Stanford in the West. “There’s something to that midwestern ethic here, people are hungry here, they’re more cooperative,” Nisbet said. At the same time, UM also looks to overcome its overbearing image within Michigan through the Tech Transfer Talent Network, a $2.4 million state-funded effort led by UM and including seven other research-intensive universities in Michigan — Wayne State, Michigan State, Michigan Tech, Western Michigan, Grand Valley State and Oakland. The primary goal of the Tech Transfer Talent Network is to increase the supply of seasoned entrepreneurs and innovators who can lend their expertise to university tech transfer offices.
“We’re working to share ideas, help them find commericalizaiton champions in their own regions, provide tools,” Nisbet said. “It’s broken down some of the competitiveness and some of the perceived arrogance of Ann Arbor, so everyone realizes that we really all are working together to make Michigan better.”
But make no mistake, UM is the big brother in this particular effort. Last year it had 368 faculty invention disclosures, a new record, and 11 startups.
Next up were a pair of companies based in the Venture Center Accelerator. First, ArborLight, which is working to make highly energy-efficient LED lighting a little more friendly, creating what you’d swear was a skylight, but isn’t.
CEO Michael Forbis joined the company in October 2011. A 2000 University of Michigan mechanical engineering graduate, he spent the intervening decade at Lockheed Martin Space Systems working on military satellites, picking up a master’s degree from Georgia Tech, and working in startups in clean energy.
“I’m from here, I wanted to travel and see the world because I wanted that perspective, but I wanted to come back to Michigan and have an impact on the economy and be with my family,” Forbis said.
ArborLight is working on mellowing the harsh, highly directional light emitted by LEDs by “spreading that light out, making it more glare free, by using wave guides and changing the color of the light.”
Initially ArborLight was working in replacements for T8 flourescent bulbs — but that’s a brutally competitive market. Intead, ArborLIght is working on something called daylight emulation.
“Daylight through a window has unique spectrum, temperature and dynamics, and it changes throughout the day,” Forbis siad. “It plays into one’s circadian rhythm, one’s alertness.”
So imagine having a skylight in a room stories underground, or in the middle of an office building under several floors above and far away from any window. ArborLight is creating ceiling fixtures that look amazingly like skylights. The light can be adjusted so that mornings and evenings, it’s more yellow and less intense. At noontime, it’s more blue and intense.
The company is currently wrapping up a funding round and hopes to start making pilot units by June 30 for demonstrations. It’s still seeking more pilot locations to try out its lighting fixtures. If you’re interested, email firstname.lastname@example.org. And more about the company overall at www.arborlight.com.
Just down the hall from ArborLight is AlertWatch, which has developed amazing patient monitoring software for hospitals. Think of the panels over the patients in the Star Trek sick bay, only with way better graphics. After all, that wasn’t really the 23rd Century, it was 1967. And now imagine those panels instantly, uh, transportable — to your laptop, your tablet, or your smartphone.
AlertWatch software is led by Justin Adams, who joined the company in June. The software was developed by UM doctor Kevin Tremper, M.D., a longtime inventor as well as doctor who has another big invention to his credit — that oximeter you wear in the hospital on your index finger that measures how much oxygen is in your blood — as well as CTO Jan Gombert.
AlertWatch takes four sources of information — patient history; monitors like EKG, blood pressure cuffs and oximeters; laboratory test results; and the patient ‘flow sheet’ that hospitals use to track your medications and other data — and aggregates it into a very slick display that’s so intuitive even a medical moron like me can tell the difference between the sick and the well. (For one thing it’s color coded. Everything trouble is in red.)
Adams said “alert fatigure” is a major problem in hospitals, with staffers getting so accustomed to the sound of constant patient alarms that they don’t react, and the fact that there are so many conditions and so many patients that staffers can’t possibly share everything about every patient at shift change. AlertWatch never forgets. And AlertWatch never ignores an alarm that’s really important.
The system has been in use at UM Hospitals for two years and is being tested by two other hospitals. Adams said an effort is also under way to integrate Alert Watch with six major medical records software companies (it’s built on a GE product called Centricity but there are plenty of competitors). It’s also in the midst of United States Food and Drug Administration approval because it provides medical “decision support,” Adams said. UM hopes to have FDA approval for AlertWatch next year “and after that we can sell it,” Adams said. “We think that large training hospitals will believe in the value of this, that it improves patient safety.”
Adams is also a UM grad, in electrical engineering. Right out of school, he worked at General Motors, where “my job was to make the check engine light come on. All this (at Alert Watch) feels like it’s not a huge stretch.”
More at www.alertwatch.com.
From AlertWatch it was a short jaunt out Liberty Street to HistoSonics, a company using a form of ultrasound for what now requires surgery.
Its initial application is for a type of surgery men fear most — prostate.
The company kicked off in December 2009 with an $11 million Series A round and has seen very promising results in animal studies. It has an FDA application to begin human studies and it hopes to be doing so next year.
Histotripsy is a form of ultrasound that breaks up tissues. Inventor Charles Cain got the idea to use histotripsy to break up benign prostate enlargement, the bane of many a middle-aged and older man, without the current risks of surgery, which include incontinence and impotence. HistoSonics is developing a medical device that uses tightly focused ultrasound pulses to treat prostate disease in a non-invasive manner with robotic precision, turning swollen excess prostate tissue into an “acellular slurry” without generating heat. The body’s natural cleanup mechanism gets rid of the slurry.
“Trans-urethral resection is the gold standard now,” said Christine Gibbons, the company’s president and COO. “We achieve the same thing without having to go in through the urethra and resecting tissue.”
Gibbons joined the company through an entrepreneur-in-residence program sponsored by the Michigan Venture Capital Association and funded by the state. CEO Tom Davidson is a 40-year veteran of the medical device industry who was asked by the university to study the oportunity of Kane’s work. Overall, Gibons said, “the university’s tech transfer office was instrumental in getting us a good solid start.”
The company now has eight employees and worked with a small prototyping shop in Dexter called Protomatic to develop the initial version of the device.
Another UM researcher, Zhen Xu, is studying using histotripsy to break up blood clots, as a non-invasive treatment for deep vein thrombosis.
My final stop Friday was H3D Inc.
Look, this is literally nuclear physics. I’m hoping I get most of it right but parts of it may be idiotically wrong, but you’ll only be able to tell if you’re fluent in physics. Otherwise it’ll just seem like gibberish, just not the right kind of gibberish.
As H3D president Willy Kaye said to me, in their extremely startup offices in an old industrial building on Ann Arbor’s west side, let’s start with germanium.
No, wait, let’s back up a bit. It’s a very good thing to be able to detect gamma rays, the most energetic form of light, and the deadliest byproduct of radioactivity. UM professor Zhong He and two of his Ph.D. students, William Kaye and Weiyi Wang, figured out a novel way to detect gamma rays accurately. At that point, Kaye said, “we thought we might be able to start a company. We were asking other companies about this, and realized nobody else could do this.”
But then they responded like good scientists — giving the technology away to see if anyone else could replicate the results.
But, Kaye said, “lots of people took our technology and tried to implement it and they just couldn’t get it done. And we started saying, we know this works, we’ve seen it in our lab, there’s no reason it can’t be commercialized.”
H3D uses CZT crystals — made of cadmium, zinc and tellurium — to detect gamma rays, using a different type of physics than the current state of the art, which uses germanium, a semiconductor that has to be kept at around 70 degrees Kelvin (that’s about 300 degrees below zero Fahrenheit) to work.
Why couldn’t other people get the technology to work? Well, for one thing, the CZT crystals need high voltage, but that varies from crystal to crystal because no two crystals are alike, meaning each detector has to be individually tuned. The competitors, Kaye said, also didn’t work hard enough on the “readout electronics,” and didn’t have “someone who understands how to convert the information you’re detectcing into something an end user cares about.”
He’s breakthrough, Kaye said, was to break up the detector into pixels and use that to fine tune the detector’s output.
So, H3D was born, and Kaye, He and Wang decided to start building CZT crystal detectors themselves, along with Feng Zhang, a research scientist at UM who has the title chief science officer at H3D.
What the detectors do is amazing. Coupled with a camera, they can tell a nuclear power plant operator exactly where the radioactive “hot spots” are inside reactor pipes, superimposing the detector’s data on a photograph.
“We can determine very accurately where contaminated areas are,” Kaye said. “We expect our first commercial sales in the nuclear power industry.”
H3D has already won $25,000 in the Accelerate Michigan business plan competition, and used the money to build prototypes that have already been tested at Midwestern nuclear power plants. It’s also received $2.3 million from the Defense Threat Raduction Agency to turn its detector into a handheld device.
The product is also being eyed as a security device to search cargo for radiation — preventing the terrorist nightmare scencario of a dirty bomb or nuke.
“What we have is a unique ability to identify radiation and image radiation, and the only thing that can compete with us is germanium, which everybody hates because it has to be kept at 70 degrees Kelvin,” Kaye said.
(I haven’t even gotten into the other technology for detecting gamma rays, called scintillators, but the H3D folks say trust us, it’s better than that, too.)
The detectors also could stop false alarms at border crossings or large events, where scintillators are used — and generate false alarms based on the level of harmless radiation left behind by medical tests.
More — well, not much more, it’s a one-page Web site linking only to an email address — at www.h3dgamma.com.
And with that, well, the back of my head was well and truly blown off. Better light, better patient care, better surgery, and better — well, nuclear science. Thanks to UM for providing me a wonderful way to spend the better part of a Friday, and I hope all four of these companies start making tons of high-tech Michigan jobs.