By Tom Henderson
Small Times Senior Writer

NEW ORLEANS, Jan. 4, 2002 — Scientists and business leaders here hope the Big Easy will be known one day for the small and difficult.

Research institutions and the Louisiana Technology Council — with the financial backing of the federal government — are pushing development of nano- and MEMS-based technologies in New Orleans and the rest of Louisiana.

Leaders in small tech here don’t have pretensions of turning the birthplace of jazz


into the next Silicon Valley, but they do want to diversify the local economy and create jobs.

Small tech research is under way at state institutions — including projects on an electron-beam synchrotron at Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge and a proton beam linear accelerator at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette.

Tulane University in New Orleans has long been a top medical-research institution, annually ranking in the top 20 universities nationwide in revenues earned from licensing intellectual property to private industry — primarily to out-of-state drug companies.

“But we have not been at the forefront of job creation,” said Carla Fishman, executive director of research administration and technology development. “Our strategy there will be shifting. Ten years ago, I didn’t have faculty members at Tulane burning to start companies. Now, they want to be entrepreneurs.”

Scott Cowen, the university’s president, said using technology developed at Tulane to benefit the local economy makes sense.

“We have done an excellent job of translating our research results into commercially viable products, but something was missing: our ability to offer options to faculty who preferred a more hands-on involvement in further developing their innovations, and a way to make our activity benefit the local region,” Cowen said. “The companies that were licensing our technology were located outside Louisiana. The phenomenon of creating companies around our technology is too sweeping and too important to ignore.”

Dennis Herringshaw, director of the Office of Technology Transfer at the University of New Orleans (UNO), said academic institutions in Louisiana have been slow to adapt to the changing model nationwide of academia partnering with the private sector.

“There’s been a gulf between industry and academic institutions here. There’s been a reluctance by universities to embrace industry. They’ve put up hurdles and made it difficult to partner with. But now there’s an outreach to business, to get this research out of the ivory towers,” he said.

UNO’s Research and Technology Park on the shores of Lake Ponchartrain, just north of the city, has five buildings, four of them taken up by the U.S. Navy’s new Information Technology Center. A sixth building, scheduled to open in two months, will house biotech labs and three biotech firms.

State and university officials say if their push toward small tech is successful, a National Science Foundation (NSF) program targeting states that traditionally receive the least amount of federal research money will deserve much of the credit.

The NSF’s Experimental Program to Stimulate Competitive Research (EPSCoR) announced last May that a consortium of universities in Louisiana had been awarded a $9 million, three-year grant, matched by $6.8 million in funds from the universities and private industry, for a project called “The Micro/Nano Technologies Consortium for Advanced Physical, Chemical and Biological Sensors.”

The research focuses on nanomaterials, microfabrication and neural signaling, with emphasis on electromagnetic thin films.

Participants are Grambling State University in Grambling, Louisiana State University (LSU) in Baton Rouge, LSU’s Health Sciences Center in New Orleans, Louisiana Tech University in Ruston, Southern University and A&M College in Baton Rouge, Tulane University in New Orleans, the University of Louisiana at Monroe, UNO and Xavier University of Louisiana in New Orleans.

Research includes a project between LSU’s Advanced Materials Research Institute in Baton Rouge and the school’s Health Sciences Center to create nanocapsules made of such alloys as iron-cobalt and cobalt-platinum that are coated with gold and used in diagnostics and drug delivery.

According to the institute’s director, Charles O’Connor, they plan to inject chemotherapy drugs into the particles, release them into the bloodstream, then target a magnetic beam at a tumor site. The particles would then congregate at the site and release the drug.

Nicolas Bazan, director of LSU’s Neuroscience Center in New Orleans, heads the neural-signaling team for the EPSCoR consortium. He hopes to license some of its discoveries for his private drug firm, St. Charles Pharmaceutical Inc., which was incorporated in 1997.

“Neuro- and nanobiology are major targets for St. Charles,” said Bazan, who has received $4 million in funding from Koerner Capital Corp. in New Orleans. “We need to create a new industry here. I hope we can have a big impact on Louisiana and New Orleans.”

Other fledgling private businesses include:

  • Mezzo Systems Inc., founded in July 2000 and operating in LSU’s Louisiana Business and Technology Center, an on-campus incubator in Baton Rouge. It has grown from one employee to seven in a year. Mezzo uses the synchrotron at LSU’s Center for Advanced Microstructures and Devices (CAMD) to make microdevices that have structures with high aspect ratios — for example, 10 microns across and one millimeter high. Mezzo has received three federal Small Business Innovative Research grants — $65,000 in May from the Ballistic Missile Defense Organization (BMDO) to make heat exchangers to cool MEMS sensors, $100,000 in June from the NSF to mold microchannels filled with high posts to increase the surface area available for chemical assays and $70,000 in November to make molds for lead and aluminum microstructures for NASA.
  • Analytical Specialties Inc., founded by Ed Overton, a professor of environmental studies and chemistry at LSU’s Baton Rouge campus, has received a $500,000 grant from DARPA to develop a portable gas chromatograph for on-site environmental testing that uses synchrotron-etched microdevices. Overton said the heart of the chromatograph is a nickel-alloy wafer about 1.5 inches by .75 inches. It has a coiled channel 50 microns wide, 500 high and two meters in length that is coated with a film of organic polymer about 100 nanometers thick. Overton said he has raised $800,000 in equity funding and hopes to have the chromatograph on the market in two years.
  • Axxon LLC is headquartered in UNO’s Research and Technology Park. It was founded in 1985 and employs 80, building and selling systems that allow radio-frequency communications with sensors in harsh environments, such as oil fields and factories. Axxon incorporates MEMS devices into some of its systems. MEMS pressure and vibration sensors monitor steam as it is injected into well heads at a ChevronTexaco Corp. oil field in Bakersfield, Calif., and monitor propane levels in widely dispersed tanks for a customer in the United Kingdom, using RF signals to route tanker trucks when a fill-up is needed.

Directors at university research labs say other spinoffs and private-sector partnerships are in the works. “We are getting closer and closer to having our first company,” said Kody Varahramyan, director of Louisiana Tech’s Institute for Micromanufacturing in northern Louisiana, which specializes in chemical vapor deposition to create environmental sensors and a variety of biotech micro- and nanodevices.

The institute, which makes MEMS devices for Sandia National Laboratories in Albuquerque, N.M., is developing polymer scaffolding for cell growth under a grant from the Whitaker Foundation and is experimenting with microreactors coated in nanometallic powders for disease detection as part of the EPSCoR grant.

LSU’s CAMD has one of a handful of university-owned synchrotrons in the country, and recently joined Stanford University, Cornell University and the University of California, Berkeley as university fabrication facilities available to private industry through the MEMS Exchange, a national network funded by the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency to help companies get microdevices prototyped.

The synchrotron’s X-rays allow for LIGA processing of MEMS and microfluidic devices. The LIGA system was developed at the Karlsruhe Research Center in Germany and allows for deep etching of nonsilicon devices. LIGA is a German acronym for X-ray lithography, electrodeposition and molding.

A $2.4 million DARPA-funded project began in December on the development of MEMS biosensors in cooperation with the University of Dortmund in Germany, the National University of Singapore and the University of Houston.

The Louisiana Accelerator Center at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette differs from the synchrotron at CAMD in that it accelerates protons instead of electrons. Since protons are much heavier, “if you get enough beam on target, you can etch structures much more efficiently than with an electron beam,” said Gary Glass, the center’s director.

Glass hopes to etch features in substrates in the 50-100-nanometer range, which he said would save several steps in the current process of making polymer microdevices.

All of this activity is a far cry from November of 1994, when Joe Grace became director of the Louisiana Technology Council. Today, the council has 250 members, mostly in the New Orleans area, many of them in information technology.

In 1994, though, the council had just a few members, and meetings were frustrating, said Grace.

“We were all trying to create some energy, but there wasn’t a whole lot there,” said Grace. “All 10 of us would stand up and shout about how great technology was. I felt like John (the Baptist) in the wilderness shouting, `Repent, technology is at hand.’ ”

Other stories in the series
Buckeye State is going biotech in attempt to create new base
NanoTexas: Land of Big Oil is now boomtown for the tiny


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