Phasing in New Technology

by Craig Bailey

Since 1992, the Vermont Experimental Program to Stimulate Competitive Research (EPSCoR) has awarded 43 small business innovative research (SBIR) grants of up to $5,000 to Vermont companies. The businesses have gone on to obtain more than $3 million in federal SBIR grants and commercial contracts. "That really encourages us to continue the program," enthuses Janet Franz, project coordinator for the University of Vermont-based partnership funded by the National Science Foundation, Vermont higher educational institutions and the state.

The organization's SBIR Phase-0 awards are intended to provide a gateway to the federal SBIR program and to propel new Vermont products into the marketplace. Recipients of the awards are expected to apply for federal Phase-1 and -2 grants, which amount to $100,000 to $750,000. Franz says she knows of 12 Phase-1 awards and three Phase-2 awards that resulted from Phase-0 projects.

"Vermont has been called one of the model EPSCoR states by the National Science Foundation," she adds. "They really like what we do." The foundation awarded $1 million to Vermont EPSCoR to be matched with local funds, securing EPSCoR's operating budget for 1999-2002.

In 1998, eight Vermont businesses were selected from 28 applicants to receive Phase-0 awards:

Glowfish Inc., Jericho


Principal investigator Stephanus Spammer and Peter Heim of Glowfish Inc. in Jericho received a Phase-0 grant for their optical fiber data storage project. The two envision storing data on optical fiber as an alternative to other optical storage systems like CD-ROMs and laser discs.

"The true benefits of this scheme," reads the company's Phase-0 abstract, "arise in the reading of the data where a radically different technique in which there are no moving parts, yields a system that is very robust and stable even in environments with excessive amounts of motion."

Enerfex Inc., Williston

The refrigeration technology being developed by Enerfex Inc. in Williston could find use in many industrial applications — from apple storage to chemical manufacturing. "It doesn't matter which industry you go to," says chemical engineer Kishore Khandavalli; "refrigeration is like a commonality."

The 6-year-old Williston company develops membranes that filter chemicals to save energy and reduce pollution. Its EPSCoR project involves a membrane that removes air from ammonia refrigeration systems, boosting efficiency.

Khandavalli is a native of India who earned his graduate degree in Ohio before coming to Vermont. One of several shareholders of the three-employee company, he estimates 90 percent of industrial refrigeration systems use ammonia as a coolant. Khandavalli says, unlike other technologies currently in use, the membrane Enerfex is developing doesn't require additional power or maintenance. As the ammonia coolant cycles through the system, it passes through the membrane, which removes particles that might have leaked in through poor joints or the like.

In November the company received Phase-1 funding from the Department of Energy.

Bill Church

Mayo Clinic alumni Bill Church explains Green Mountain Antibodies Inc. in Burlington uses mice to manufacture antibodies that are genetically altered to regulate blood coagulation in humans. (Photo: Jeff Clarke)

Green Mountain Antibodies Inc., Burlington

Bill Church founded Green Mountain Antibodies Inc. in 1994 while he was a faculty member in the biochemistry research program at UVM's College of Medicine. "My research at University of Vermont was on blood coagulation," explains Church, who left his faculty position a couple of years later and now holds an adjunct position. "If you have too much blood clotting you can have a stroke or heart attack — it can block blood flow. If you don't have enough blood clotting you can bleed to death.

"We found that these molecules we can make in labs, called monoclonal antibodies, could regulate the process of blood coagulation," he says.

Green Mountain Antibodies manufactures monoclonal antibodies using mice, before the molecules are genetically altered for use in humans. The three-person company in the Chace Mill was awarded a Phase-0 grant to continue its work developing antibodies useful as anticoagulants, drugs that minimize blood clotting. It sold such an antibody to SmithKline Beecham of England that might offer an attractive alternative to heparin, a commonly used anticoagulant that constitutes a market of several billion dollars a year.

"Drugs like heparin will block blood coagulation, but then you get subsequent bleeding," says Church. "With this particular monoclonal antibody, we didn't seem to have that problem."

Green Mountain Antibodies applied to the National Institute of Health, one of 11 agencies that administer the federal SBIR program, for a Phase-1 grant. "It looked promising, but they said we need to get further down the road before we'd be a legitimate contender for the money," Church says.

Stuart Lindsay

Treadle Power Inc. of Burlington manufactures a tricycle for people with special needs. "Movement encourages language development," says Stuart Lindsay. (Photo: Jeff Clarke)

Treadle Power Inc., Burlington

When Stuart Lindsay and his partners began manufacturing the Step 'n Go cycle in 1992, he wasn't sure where his product would find a home. "We had no idea where the application was," admits Lindsay. Invented by a North Dakota forklift salesman as a way for people to shuttle around within large warehouses, the tricycle took on a new life as a mode of therapeutic recreation and mobility for people with physical and cognitive special needs following its first public appearance.

When Treadle Power of Burlington co-sponsored a human-powered vehicle exhibit at the Burlington Community Boathouse, a family approached the company and requested a test drive for its 8-year-old, disabled daughter. After passing her crutches to her father, "She took off so fast her parents had to run and catch her," Lindsay recalls. "The hair stood up on the back of my neck, because that was an application we'd never seen."

Lindsay explains the $1,249 cycle relies on reciprocal motion. As one pedal goes down, the other comes up, similar to a stair stepper, making it functional for people who have the ability to push their legs but not lift them. Combined with a reliance on "natural mapping," a design that plays to people's natural instinct of what to do when they mount the cycle, the Step 'n Go is functional for riders with cerebral palsy, Down syndrome, traumatic brain injuries, spina bifida and other disabilities.

Lindsay and his wife, Susan Hayward, operated Energy Alternatives, a Nova Scotia business concerned with solar and wind power, for several years before moving to the Green Mountains in 1990. The couple became owner of Treadle Power six years later.

"The purpose of the EPSCoR grant is to explore what modifications would enable a greater population of riders to become mobile," Lindsay says. The company plans to apply for a Phase-1 grant soon.

LexIcon Systems, Sharon

Michael Hillinger believes the future of instructional software is on the World Wide Web. "The traditional publishing model has not really worked very well," he says, adding the market is "littered with the bones of companies that have tried to sell educational software."

Hillinger, who holds a Ph.D. in experimental psychology, was executive editor for instructional software at Houghton Mifflin Co. in Hanover, N.H. When the company moved to Cambridge in 1989, Hillinger ventured forth on his own.

LexIcon Systems, a one-man operation based at Hillinger's home office in Sharon, is focused on research and development of interactive, multimedia instruction. "A lot of the work I do is taking existing materials — video, text and graphics — and re-formatting or what I call 're- purposing' them into interactive formats," he explains. Hillinger's EPSCoR grant was a response to the Department of Defense's request for proposals for methods of translating instructional material from traditional media into interactive formats.

As a test run, Hillinger teamed up with PKC Corp. in Burlington to develop a Web- based tutorial for PKC's medical diagnosis software. The tutorial, online at www.lexiconsys.com/epscor.html, uses the free Shockwave Web browser plug-in to provide animation and narration for PKC clients learning to use the diagnosis system.

The defense department turned down LexIcon's Phase-1 proposal for the project, but the company has a Phase-1 grant from the Department of Education to teach basic skills to workers. Hillinger hopes the initiative will lead to a product that combines Web technology with more salable CD-ROMs. "How does one make money with materials on the Web?" he asks. "That's kind of where we're standing now."

Ken Puzey

TeraComm Research Inc. in Essex Junction hopes to develop the fastest fiber optic transmitter in the world for phone and cable companies. "Some of these companies are very interested," says Ken Puzey. (Photo: Jeff Clarke)

TeraComm Research Inc., Essex Junction

Ken Puzey believes his company can increase the speed of fiber optic transmissions in commercial applications by a factor of 100 by the year 2003. "Venture capitalists don't like to hear that," Puzey says. "They want everything two years or less."

Without the help of venture capital, TeraComm Research Inc. has secured funding from individual investors, a regional Bell operating company, the Department of Defense and Vermont EPSCoR. Puzey, the Essex Junction company's president, majority shareholder and sole employee, says, "The business is seeking to create the world's fastest fiber optic transmitter," a device that converts electrical signals into pulses of light that travel across optical fibers. "The faster you can operate the transmitter the more data optical fiber can carry." Potential customers include phone companies like AT&T and Sprint, as well as cable companies.

TeraComm Research was started by Puzey while he was a graduate student at the University of Colorado in Boulder. The upstate New York native was attracted to Vermont by the reputation of the advanced material research center at the University of Vermont. Puzey's home provides office space for the business, while UVM offers lab space.

TeraComm is focusing its efforts on super-conducting thin films to control light pulses. It's a patented process developed by Puzey that's radically different from the three methods in use. The company has received two Phase-0 grants since its 1995 incorporation. The previous Phase-0 led to $850,000 in SBIR grants from the Department of Defense.

Richard Jenny

Richard Jenny explains Haematologic Technologies Inc. in Essex Junction received a Phase-0 grant to develop a test to measure the effects of blood clot-dissolving drugs. (Photo: Jeff Clarke)

Haematologic Technologies Inc., Essex Junction

Haematologic Technologies Inc. has been in the blood business since 1987. The Essex Junction company is co-owned by Kenneth Mann, a former Mayo Clinic researcher at the University of Vermont and associate of Bill Church of Green Mountain Antibodies Inc.

"We are focused on blood coagulation," says Richard Jenny, president, scientific researcher and co-owner. "We isolate proteins from human blood that are involved in the blood coagulation process and then sell those proteins to researchers." The company markets 200 reagent products to 500 clients through its catalog. In 11 years the company has grown from a staff of two in Essex Junction's Pinewood Plaza to a dozen employees occupying 6,500 square feet of lab and office space.

"A large population of people in the United States and in the world are being treated with clot-dissolving drugs," Jenny says in explaining his company's Phase-0 project. "One of the fundamental problems has been trying to monitor the progress of these patients who are receiving these drugs. The current technologies that are utilized are affected by a number of factors.

"What we set out to do is to design a test that would improve upon current technology. The results of our tests are more directly related to the actual effect of the drug."

Jenny says his company, which has received six Phase-1 awards and a Phase-2 award for other projects, might submit the project for a Phase-1 award later. He says the development of a collection tube that renders blood suitable for use in the company's test has met with "a fair degree of success."

MicroStrain Inc., Burlington

"They write very good proposals," EPSCoR's Janet Franz says of MicroStrain Inc. "Can't turn them down!" The Burlington company was founded in the mid-'80s by Steven Arms to manufacture transducers, tiny sensing devices used to measure displacement in everything from the human body to aircraft wings.

MicroStrain has received seven Phase-0 grants since the program was conceived in 1992. Its 1998 project is titled "Novel Fabrication Methods for High Volume, Low Cost, Microcoils."

The deadline for submissions for the 1999 Phase-0s will be in late January. Contact Janet Franz, Vermont EPSCoR, 527A Cook Building, University of Vermont, Burlington, Vt. 05405 USA; (802) 656-7969; (802) 656-2950 (fax); jfranz@zoo.uvm.edu. Or visit the Vermont EPSCoR website: http://epscor.uvm.edu.