Buckeye state is going biotech to create new base

By Tom Henderson
Small Times Senior Writer

CLEVELAND, Sept. 24, 2001 — Though this city has come a long way since it was known as the “Mistake on the Lake,” Ohio has yet to shake its rust-belt image.

But while the state still lags in high-tech economic development, a consortium of government and

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university researchers are getting together to develop small tech. They hope to turn Ohio into what Aaron Fleischman, a bioMEMS researcher at the Cleveland Clinic Foundation, refers to as “a center of excellence.”

It is a joint effort, he says, that won’t run from the state’s manufacturing past, but exploit it. “We know how to make things in the Midwest,” he said.

The Milken Institute, a nonprofit organization that studies economic development, ranks Ohio 26th in its New Economy Index of high-tech industry and commerce, with Massachusetts, California and Connecticut occupying the top three positions.

Recent developments, though, show how the state is building a new base in biotechnology.

BioMEMS and Biomedical Nanotechnology World 2001 in Columbus will host as many as 700 attendees from Sept. 22-25. They will hear nearly 100 presentations on the latest research and products in biotechnology at the micro and nanoscale.

It is chaired by Mauro Ferrari, who was recruited by Ohio State University two years ago from the University of California, Berkeley to develop an undergraduate program in bioengineering.

The Ohio MicroMD Laboratory in Columbus is a 20,000-square-foot, state-of-the art biotechnology microfabrication facility and wet lab scheduled to open this spring. The facility, funded by Ohio State University and the state of Ohio, sits in the Science and Technology Campus, the university’s new research park.

“We’ll be serving both academia and industry,” said director Jon Gray. “We’re still setting up the fee structure for industry, but it will be dependent on lab usage. It will be for academic researchers, for large, established companies, for startups and for university spin-offs.” Ferrari called the new facility “the Taj Mahal of biomedical micro/nanotechnology. Nobody’s got anything like it.”

The Glennan Microsystems Initiative was founded in 1998 in response to a directive by NASA administrator Daniel Goldin that NASA facilities select specific technologies for commercialization.

The state of Ohio, through its Technology Action Fund, agreed to fund $4.5 million over five years, with federal agencies, primarily NASA, funding an additional $16 million.

The initiative aims to create a regional niche in silicon-carbide-based technologies, leveraging research that was well under way at the time at Cleveland’s Case Western Reserve University (CWRU), long a pioneer in MEMS technologies, and at the NASA Glenn Research Center, in suburban Brookpark.

Silicon carbide (SiC) is a crystal that works in harsher environments than silicon — at temperatures higher than 450 degrees Celsius, where silicon begins to degrade, or where there is high radioactivity. But it is harder to grow, is much more costly than standard silicon and is harder to combine with MEMS devices.

“We think we have a good niche where we’ll have competitive advantages,” said Walter Merrill, Glennan’s executive director since its founding.

SiC pressure sensors in engines, now in the early stages of development, could better regulate fuel-oxygen mixtures, increasing efficiency and decreasing emissions. SiC-based MEMS devices in satellites could better withstand the radioactivity of space. And researchers say implantable SiC bioMEMS devices will be well suited to the saline and chemical environment inside the human body.

Initiative members include Ohio State University, the University of Dayton, the University of Cincinnati, the University of Toledo, Wright State University, Cleveland State University, the Air Force Institute of Technology at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, the Ohio Aerospace Institute and FiberLead Inc., a private startup based on CWRU research.

Glennan has contracted with FiberLead to create a silicon-carbide-based manufacturing platform that can be used by a variety of MEMS devices, allowing small tech companies to share the cost of research and prototype development.

The Cleveland Clinic Foundation runs the world-famous Cleveland Clinic, ranked the top heart hospital for seven years in a row by U.S. News and World Report, and its research affiliate across Carnegie Street, the Lerner Research Institute, which began a major push in bioMEMS in 1998.

Fleischman and Shuvo Roy, both Ph.D. students of MEMS pioneer Mehran Mehregany at CWRU, were hired by the Cleveland Clinic Foundation in 1998 to start a bioMEMS program. Both have expertise in silicon carbide.

Roy and Fleischman say the strength of their various projects is the collaborative nature of the foundation campus — members of each project include engineers, clinicians, former executives with medical-device companies who lend real-world expertise to product development, and surgeons, who are the end-users of new medical devices.

“I can walk down the hall and meet people with a Ph.D. in biology or a Ph.D. in mechanical engineering, or I can meet a surgeon. There’s a collegiality that becomes a fertile ground for the cross-breeding of new ideas,” said Roy.

The collaborations extend a couple of miles east to CWRU, where Roy and Fleischman have their prototype MEMS devices fabricated, and a few miles west to NASA Glenn, whose expertise in wireless communications is crucial for development of implantable radio frequency bioMEMS devices.

The foundation’s research projects include:

  • An ultrasonic transducer, which is a combination of MEMS pressure sensor and miniature camera that allows for better diagnosis and treatment of arteriosclerosis.
  • Polymer strips dotted with tiny holes in the 10-20-micron range. The strips are enhancing cell growth in the laboratory today and may eventually be placed in patients with severe fractures or cranial abnormalities that have been resistant to healing.
  • Nanopore membranes to collect adult stem cells from bone-marrow cells taken from donors. Cleveland Clinic surgeon George Muschler, with consent of his patients undergoing a variety of procedures, draws out about 16 cc of bone marrow from their pelvises. Roughly one of each 20,000 cells in the marrow is a stem cell. Nanopore membranes help separate the stem cells from the other cells. Stem cells later put in contact with bone become bone cells and help promote healing.
  • A catheter-based system for targeted delivery of drugs inside arteries, administered by MEMS-actuated pumps and a microneedle array on a blow-up balloon.
  • Spinal RF (radio frequency) MEMS implants able to monitor bone fusion and accelerate it through electrical stimulation.

Some projects are in the proof-of-concept phase to see if the basic concept is valid before moving on to production or clinical tests. Cell proliferation on the textured polymer has been demonstrated in a laboratory setting. The spinal implants are being tested for biocompatibility in the spine of a goat. In December they will be removed and researchers will see how they hold up in the spine.

Funding sources include $600,000 over three years from the Glennan Microsystems Initiative for targeted drug delivery using microneedles; $1.05 million over two years from the Ohio Technology Action Fund to research implantable MEMS devices; $70,000 from NASA for the textured polymer for cell growth; and a share of a $2.78 million National Institute of Standards and Technology grant to ISSYS Inc., an Ann Arbor, Mich., firm that is having its cranial pressure sensors monitored by Roy’s group.

The NASA Glenn Research Center’s influence spreads throughout Ohio, thanks to its research in SiC, its membership in Glennan and its focus on private-sector partnerships.

NASA formed a Technology Utilization Program in 1962, about 20 years before technology transfer became a priority at other federal institutions. Larry Viterna, chief of Glenn’s Commercial Technology Office, said that NASA has used success stories about spinning technology into the private sector over the years when it came to lobbying Congress at budget time.

Viterna said Glenn collaborates with the private sector in a number of ways.

  • Its fee-based incubator service, called the Lewis Incubator for Technology (LIFT), is available to small tech firms in need of on-site office space at Glenn and or an off-site wet lab.
  • Its Commercial Technology Office licenses research to the private sector and makes grants through its Commercial Technology Fund for Glenn projects that find matching grants from academia or industry. It has made a $70,000 grant to a joint project involving the Glenn electrophysics department and Cleveland Clinic’s team making microtextured polymers for growing bone cells.
  • It provides contract services for private industry. Viterna said about 150 companies have contracted with the electrophysics branch to do surface texturing, etching or cleaning using beams of atomic oxygen.


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CONTACT THE AUTHOR:
Tom Henderson at tomhenderson@smalltimes.com or call 734-528-6292.

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