Small tech companies outduel all comers at Purdue competition

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April 29, 2003 – Small tech companies took two out of three top prizes at Purdue University’s Life Sciences Business Plan competition last week, besting contenders that offered cures for multiple sclerosis, high blood pressure and improvements in pharmaceutical manufacturing.

MEMS-based advanced optics technology developer Iris AO won $50,000 in grand prize money and $10,000 worth of free legal and accounting services. Third place winner NanoString Technologies raked in $15,000 in cash and $6,000 in services.

Morning-after analysis indicates that what put the fledgling nano firms into the winner’s circle was a combination of gee-whiz technology and tough belt-tightening that leverages campus resources.

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“We saw a real commercial application for what we had developed. Lots of nanotechnology companies have cool technology looking for problems to solve,” said Iris AO chief operating officer Matthew Campbell.

Universities, national laboratories and commercial optics companies have already signed up to buy Iris AO’s SmartMirror technology, which uses microelectromechanical systems (MEMS) to give eye doctors a clearer picture of the retina and other ocular structures.

The system corrects for defects in any optical system, as when, for example, ophthalmologists want to photograph the back of the eye to track the course of disease. Currently, they have to take their pictures through the blurry lens of an imperfect eye. With Iris AO’s low-cost deformable micromirrors, they can get images that are three to 10 times clearer.

Individual cone cells are visible, as are individual blood cells moving through capillaries. “The wow! factor of nanotechnology is definitely still there,” Campbell said.

But investors lost hundreds of millions of dollars betting on the wow of optical MEMS for telecommunications, so Iris AO kept capital expenses to a minimum. Its first products were manufactured in rented University of California, Berkeley lab facilities; in the future it will use a MEMS foundry rather than build its own facilities.

NanoString Technologies, spawned by the University of Washington in Seattle, is also renting its laboratory talent and facilities and plans to subcontract the manufacture of probes to label unique molecules for gene profiling. MBA candidates Amber Ratcliffe and Aaron Coe started the company, with Krassen Dimitrov, director of DNA arrays at the Institute for Systems Biology in Seattle.

“They’re not investing in a lot of fixed costs,” said Suresh Kotha, director of UW’s center for technology entrepreneurship. “All these projects start out in research institutions and research institutions are learning there is value in allowing these people to experiment with commercial ventures.”

Iris AO is moving out of the university setting soon, and into a Bay Area market where real estate, technology and talent are no longer as costly as they once were.

“We’re benefiting greatly from the tech bust,” Campbell said. “We can get equipment and furniture for 5 or 10 cents on the dollar.”

Holder of a UC Berkeley MBA, Campbell co-founded Iris AO with Michael A. Helmbrecht, who researches MEMS processing techniques at the Berkeley Sensor and Actuator Center, and Nathan Doble, a researcher at the Center for Visual Science at the University of Rochester, N.Y.

Competition was intense at the West Lafayette school, with a pot sweetened to the tune of $100,000 by Roche Diagnostics, which has its headquarters in that city. Angling for leadership in the life sciences nationally, the state of Indiana added $20,000 to the prize pile, and a local law firm, Baker & Daniels, and accounting firm Clifton Gunderson also contributed.


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