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From laboratory concept to working product


Anyone who has ever been unnerved by the whirr of the dentist’s drill can appreciate a sound-absorbing material that would reduce that noise.

The same noise-mitigating technology being developed by Boone-based Vibroacoustics Solutions Inc. also may also soon find its way into Iowa-made products such as Maytag washers and office partitions made by HNI Corp.

Vibroacoustics is among a handful of Iowa companies that are taking their concepts to the prototype stage using funding from the Small Business Innovation Research program. Each year, federal agencies make thousands of requests for specific research and development proposals through the SBIR program, through which the agencies seek small entrepreneurial companies with the brain power to develop the technologies.

“These SBIR projects are really nice research opportunities, because they allow these companies to really go after very risky prototype development projects,” said Cary Novak, a technology transfer associate with Iowa State University’s Institute for Physical Research and Technology “And if they can work, they lay the foundation for (further grants).”

However, state budget cuts have lowered the number of Iowa companies that are able to take advantage of the program, said Novak, whose office lost a full-time position a year ago that had been dedicated to assisting start-up businesses in applying. Since then, only about four companies have received assistance, compared with an average of 15 to 20 in each of the last two years.

Some relief may come from the new Grow Iowa Values Fund legislation that Gov. Tom Vilsack is expected to sign, however. That measure designates $5 million in annual funding to the state universities, “so we think some of that’s going to trickle down to us to reinvigorate our technology-transfer efforts,” Novak said.

Under a Phase I SBIR proposal, companies with fewer than 500 employees can submit proposals which, if approved, will pay them up to $100,000 to develop a proof of concept for a particular technological application. If they’re successful in developing the proof of concept, as Vibroacoustics was in December, they can then apply for a Phase II award of up to $750,000 for a two-year period to develop a working prototype of a product.

“Small companies have very good ideas, but few resources to bring those ideas to market,” said Atul Kelkar, who co-founded Vibroacoustics with Ken Budke, a Cedar Falls dentist and entrepreneur. “Big companies will rarely invest in early stages of development. They will only invest if they see a product is nearly ready to be released.”

Kelkar, who is an associate professor of mechanical engineering at ISU, expects to receive confirmation within the next week that his company has been awarded a $500,000 grant from the National Science Foundation. The project, to build a prototype of an active noise-mitigation system that uses electrical currents to create vibrations in the acoustic material, has already received a favorable recommendation from an NSF project manager, Kelkar said. Vibroacoustics has been in discussions with Maytag Corp., HNI and VT Industries, an acoustic door and countertop manufacturer in Holstein, he said, about specially developing its noise-dampening material for use in products made by each of the companies.

Another Iowa company, Ames-based Integrated Sensor Technologies Inc., has used an SBIR grant from the National Institutes of Health to prove that its concept for a low-cost oxygen sensing device is workable. Like Vibroacoustics, IST will probably apply for a Phase II grant soon. Used primarily in the medical industry to monitor the oxygen levels of respiratory patients or those going under anesthesia, oxygen sensors are also used in the food industry, for testing water quality and a host of emerging applications.

Integrated Sensor Technologies’ device will couple an oxygen sensing unit with an organic light emitting diode, or OLED, which shines with varying degrees of luminescence depending on the amount of oxygen present. The company’s strategy is to introduce a more efficient, lower-cost system to the market and compete on price, reliability and size.

“Our device is about as simple as you can get,” said Joseph Shinar, a senior physicist with ISU, who co-founded IST with his wife, Ruth, a scientist with the university’s Microelectronics Research Center. “It’s very simple and so it should be very cheap.” The OLED technology can also be modified to work with other types of sensors, such as those in glucose, lactate and alcohol monitors, “so the potential is very high for this technology,” he said.

The assistance received through ISU’s Technology Commercialization Acceleration Program, including the feedback the company received on its concept from ISU professors in specialty areas relating to potential applications, was particularly useful, Ruth Shinar said.

Ideally, Novak said, companies will have developed a defined product development road map to follow in pursuing SBIR grants.

“We’ve been fortunate in that both of these companies have these awards that fit right in with what they want to do,” he said. “They’re not just out there chasing money; that never works. Some companies view SBIRs that way.”

Because Iowa has relatively few technology companies compared with high-tech meccas such as California or Massachusetts, it’s near the bottom of the heap in receiving SBIR awards, Novak said.

SBIR activity in Iowa peaked in 2003 at 22 awards, six of those being Phase II awards, but has since fallen off sharply. The primary reason, Novak said, is that state funding for technology transfer and commercialization programs was cut in half three years ago. His office, which in July 2004 lost a full-time position that assisted companies applying for the federal grants, will fill a half-time position to work with SBIR requests beginning July 1.

With the staffing cutback, “we’re just getting less proposals submitted now than we did the last three or four years, which means fewer will be approved,” he said. “With no full-time help since July, our office has maybe worked on three or four SBIRs on the side in our spare time. If we had a full-time person, we would have worked on 15 to 20.”

For more information about Small Business Innovation Research grants or other technology commercialization assistance programs available at Iowa State University, contact Cary Novak at the Institute for Physical Research and Technology, (515) 294-2293, or log on to www.iprt.iastate.edu/assistance/index.html.

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