EPSCoR Update

Six Chittenden County businesses take the prize from the Vermont Experimental Program to Stimulate Competitive Research

by Craig Bailey

For certain types of businesses in Vermont that know where to look, there are federal dollars waiting to be acquired. That's one message Chris Allen is spreading. Since 1995 Allen has been project director of the Vermont Experimental Program to Stimulate Competitive Research (EPSCoR). The partnership of federal government, the state and private sector interests helps Vermonters attract federal funding for research and development.

"Our mission is to help the small entrepreneur in Vermont identify ways to help grow their business that they might be unaware of," he says, "that are more in the tradition of academic research funding."

One tool Vermont EPSCoR uses to meet that goal is its small business innovative research (SBIR) Phase-0 grant. Based on a federal model, Phase-0 grants provide seed money in $5,000 denominations for small businesses planning to apply for federal Phase-1 and -2 grants. Federal grants range from $100,000 to $750,000.

"This is an important economic engine for Vermont," says Allen. "A lot of people don't realize that research in Vermont is a major industry."

Unlike previous rounds, the recipients announced in September are Chittenden County businesses. Allen stresses that Vermont EPSCoR is a statewide program, although it maintains headquarters at the University of Vermont.

BioMosaics Inc., Charlotte

BioMosaics Inc. is a medical technology development company founded in 1998 on technology developed at the University of Vermont. President and chief scientific officer Mark Allegretta helped develop the technology as a graduate student studying under professor Richard Albertini. Robert Hemley, a pharmaceutical industry business development consultant in White Plains, N.Y., is the third partner in the venture.

Allegretta, a Connecticut native whose Charlotte home is virtual headquarters for the company, explains the business is focused on developing two blood tests. The one that received the Phase-0, would identify people at risk for developing a particular type of cancer.

Mark Allegretta of BioMosaics in Charlotte is developing a blood test to identify people at risk for a particular type of leukemia.

The human T-lymphotropic virus Type-1 is the primary cause of adult T-cell leukemia. "The virus is endemic in Japan, where about 1 percent of the population has been shown to be infected with the virus," explains Allegretta. "The problem there is that many people have the virus, but only a percentage of them go on to develop this leukemia.

BioMosaics' test would identify which virus carriers are at risk of developing the cancer, which kills 90 to 95 percent of those diagnosed within five years.

How does a virus lead to cancer? "If you could answer that," jokes Allegretta, "you'd have the Nobel Prize." Scientists understand the virus integrates itself into cellular DNA, causing instability and mutations during cellular reproduction. One result can be cancerous cells.

BioMosaics will license its technology to a pharmaceutical company and collect royalty revenue, or begin manufacturing and marketing test kits. "If all of a sudden we have three or four diagnostics all based on the same test," Allegretta adds, "it's much more likely that we would be inclined to do that ourselves."

The company has applied for a Phase-1 grant from the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Disease.

Green Mountain Antibodies Inc., Burlington

Green Mountain Antibodies received a Phase-0 grant to study the formation of blood vessels and its relation to cancerous tumors. The company plans to create a collection of monoclonal antibodies that will recognize segments of the blood protein plasminogen. Angiostatin, one such segment, is an angiogenesis inhibitor: It limits the formation of new blood vessels, consequently fighting cancer by cutting blood supply to tumors. The Burlington company will work to identify angiostatin in cancer patients by analyzing blood samples with the goal of determining the most effective form of the inhibitor.

Green Mountain Radio Research Co., Colchester

Frederick Raab specializes in increasing power amplifier efficiency. He founded Green Mountain Radio Research Co. of Colchester with his wife, Becky, in 1980. He had come to Vermont from Cincinnati five years earlier to work for Polhemus.

Raab, a multiple graduate of Iowa State University, explains the systems he works on are used in radio transmitters, MRI systems, "or other industrial systems that generate high-power radio signals. To make these amplifiers efficient," he says, "you need to tune them to the frequency of operation, much like tuning a dial on the radio.

"If you ever looked in an old radio," he continues, "you know that the tuning apparatus is fairly large. Not only is is large -- it's also slow. Were you to tune something automatically with ordinary components, you'd need to drive it with a motor.

"I had an idea that we could tune an amplifier electronically -- no moving parts." The concept, he says, is radical. Applications include heating, plasma generation, and communications. "It's certainly one of the most unconventional amplifiers that I have ever made."

Lumar Ltd., Burlington

Ludwig Weimann's work to develop a sonically enhanced transdermal drug delivery system is as extensive as his struggle to become a U.S. citizen: Thirty years ago Weimann defected from Poland at age 29.

"I wasn't persecuted, but I didn't want to go back to face the Socialistic reality," says the German-born Weimann, "especially the pressure on scientists to become party members." Following a Ph.D. from Poznan University in Poland the physical chemist came to the University of Kansas in Lawrence through an exchange program with the Polish Ministry of Education in 1970. "I asked for political asylum," he says. "It wasn't an easy decision, but sometimes in your life you make very difficult decisions." Weimann came to America alone; his mother and cousins still live in Poland.

It took three years for him to overcome American prejudices that branded all scientists from Eastern Bloc countries Communists. (Weimann was never a party member.) "Something happened in Washington in the State Department that they finally recognized that I'm not any kind of dangerous person," he chuckles. He gained residency in 1974 and earned citizenship five years later.

Ludwig Weimann's Lumar Ltd. in Burlington has patented sonoporation, a method of enhancing transdermal drug delivery with ultrasound.

Through the '70s Weimann worked with adhesives and coatings. In 1980, Bertek, a St. Albans company he had been consulting for, hired him as research director and he relocated from the Midwest to Vermont. He worked for Bertek, which was eventually bought by Mylan Technologies, until 1998. Then he founded Lumar Ltd., a research and development consulting firm focused on transdermal drug delivery systems, patches that administer drugs through the skin. The company is based in Weimann's Burlington home and leases lab space in St. Albans.

"There are a limited number of drugs one can deliver through skin ... (by) just putting the adhesive in place on the skin," explains Weimann. "The more active delivery of the drug would be to force the drug into the skin. Those forces are electric current and ultrasound."

In December he completed an 18-month research contract with Junru Wu, chair of the physics department at the University of Vermont and a specialist in medical applications of ultrasound. The research resulted in a method of enhancing transdermal drug delivery with ultrasound that Weimann termed sonoporation. The process received a provisional patent in November.

The Phase-0 grant allowed Weimann to purchase equipment and skin samples for his research. He enthusiastically credits the money with allowing him to collect the data that led to the patent.

"We have equipment that could be adapted very, very easily to use on human volunteers," he says. Potential applications could include delivery of insulin, vaccinations and other drugs that are currently only administrable intravenously.

Weimann, who returned to Poland for the first time six years ago, has filed for a Phase-1 grant with the National Institute of Health to continue his research. He expects a decision in February.

MicroStrain Inc., Burlington

MicroStrain Inc. received its seventh Phase-0 award this year. President Steve Arms has leveraged the grants into approximately $1 million in federal funds.

The company manufactures transducers, tiny devices that measure displacement and strain and can be implanted in everything from bridges to human joints. MicroStrain's most recent Vermont EPSCoR grant was for its work with wireless transceivers and rechargeable batteries to overcome power limitations involved in datalogging from remote or implantable sensors. "Those elements haven't been combined to the best of my knowledge," says Arms.

Using rechargeable batteries allows sensing devices to be sealed and implanted in areas where it's impractical to provide power through more conventional means.

Arms says the most practical application will be to monitor structures like buildings and airplane wings. "We also envision other devices that might be wearable. Imagine that when football players collide with each other, the forces of that collision," says Arms, "could be monitored and then transmitted back to your TV screen so you could see how hard they actually hit each other. Everything could be embedded into the belt they wear.

"Then maybe boxing judges could actually get it right," he jokes.

Subterranean Research Inc., Burlington

"We wanted to speed the diffusion of research and new technology from universities and national laboratories into environmental practice," says Donna Rizzo. "That's one of the reasons I got so excited about starting this company."

Rizzo is co-owner of Subterranean Research Inc., a Burlington company she started in 1995 with Dave Dougherty. The two met more than a decade ago, when Dougherty was serving as adviser to Rizzo as she worked on a Ph.D. at the University of California. When Dougherty was recruited by UVM, Rizzo followed him to Vermont.

Donna Rizzo and Dave Dougherty of Burlington's Subterranean Research are working on a device to measure contamination in soil.

Dougherty continues to teach in the department of civil and environmental engineering. Rizzo, a native of Connecticut, also taught in the department following her post-doctoral work, but left her teaching position two years ago to focus on Subterranean Research. The business consults mostly government clients on cleaning contaminated environments. "We focus on soils and ground water," explains Rizzo. "Anything below the surface of the earth."

She says clean-up procedures for contaminated sites are often planned subjectively, relying on the opinion of experts. "We have actually developed numerical tools to optimize the design of a clean-up system," says Rizzo.

The company received a Phase-0 for its efforts to develop a hand-held device that will measure the amount of petroleum hydrocarbons in soil. "That way you can get an idea of where the contamination is in the subsurface environment, so that you can try to model it or predict how to clean it up." The procedure involves illuminating soil with a specific frequency of light that causes the contaminants to fluoresce.

Subterranean Research, with the help of UVM research student Holly Taylor, is also growing a variety of plants in contaminated soil in a lab to determine if certain florae can reduce toxins. "The idea is to use the probe to measure conditions before and after," says Rizzo, who adds the company plans to apply to the EPA for a Phase-1 for the project.

For information on the next Phase-0 round, contact Janet Franz, Vermont EPSCoR, 527A Cook Building, University of Vermont, Burlington, Vt. 05405; (802) 656-7969; (802) 656-2950 (fax); jfranz@zoo.uvm.edu; on the Web at epscor.uvm.edu.