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Innovation with an impact

Published Date: 
Monday, December 5, 2011

For Kendra Sharp, taking a faculty position at Oregon State University in 2010 was appealing because it meant more chances to collaborate—not just with colleagues in the College of Engineering, where she is an associate professor of mechanical engineering, but also with faculty in other departments and colleges around campus.

Sharp thinks these collaborations could lead to research discoveries that will make a real difference. “I’m really interested in working on technology that can lead to commercialization,” Sharp says. “I was excited to work on not just fundamental topics, but topics that are a little more applied and have a future in being able to help people.”

Sharp, and other researchers with similar goals, spend much of their time at the Microproducts Breakthrough Institute (MBI), a collaborative effort between Oregon State and Pacific Northwest National Laboratory (PNNL). MBI’s mission is to create and develop micro- and nanotechnologies and then usher them through the process of commercialization. Many of these new technologies are focused on fields such as energy systems, microchannel heat and mass transfer processes, microreactor technologies, nanoparticle synthesis, and fabrication of microchannel components.

Sharp works with experimental fluid mechanics and microfluidics. One of her main projects through MBI involves the spinout company HD Plus, which makes a microchannel dialyzer designed for dialysis patients to use in their homes. HD Plus recently received funding from the National Institutes of Health to help propel the home dialyzer into the market. “Given the number of people in the world who rely on dialysis, this could have some transformative impact in the dialysis regime,” Sharp says.

The trick to the HD Plus device, says Brian Paul, a professor of manufacturing engineering and co-director of MBI, is the microchannel unit that reduces the overall size of the dialysis treatment system. “Being able to reduce size reduces cost and allows us to do things at home that we used to have to do at centralized facilities,” Paul says. “Dialysis treatment at home allows the patient to have kidney function that is more amenable to what a typical person would have.”

The concept for HD Plus was generated at Oregon State by Paul and Goran Jovanovic, MBI associate director and professor of chemical engineering. PNNL was instrumental in developing the concept, largely due to a robust and diverse intellectual property portfolio.

Startups like HD Plus become potentially viable commercial ventures by attracting funding and support beyond the stage where researchers are able to prove that their concept works. “Typical tech starts as proof of concept, then prototype, then what we call the ‘valley of death,’ ” says Ward TeGrotenhuis of PNNL and co-director of MBI. “A lot of technologies get hung up at that point because it takes a lot of investment to take it to the next step. That’s when you need to find the entrepreneurs and venture capitalists.”

That’s where Oregon State’s Office of Commercialization can become essential in working with MBI to connect startups like HD Plus with potential management teams that can take them forward. ONAMI (Oregon Nanoscience and Microtechnologies Institute), a state-funded agency that collaborates with Oregon universities and PNNL, also funds startups in the often-critical “valley of death” stage.

The idea of moving research beyond proof of concept is something that TeGrotenhuis considers career-changing for him and has helped him connect with the MBI’s mission. “For most of my career I’ve had the perspective of a researcher. If I had a good idea and it was technically sound, showing that was enough,” he says. “Now I appreciate that the hardest part is not the technical demonstration, but pinpointing the commercial value that’s the driver towards taking it from an idea to a product.”

Researchers aren’t the only ones who benefit from seeing their work through MBI make an impact. Oregon State students can, too. “I’ve got former students who are working for some of these startup companies,” says Paul. “I take pride in the fact that we’re not just training them and sending them out, but also giving them opportunities to see significant impact—in the economy, in health care, and in clean energy industries.”

--Marie Oliver