Utah is full of creative people. After all, the first artificial heart was developed here, and Utah born Philo Farnsworth invented the TV. But for many inventors it's difficult to find money to create or test prototypes, says Ted McAleer.
"Typically when an individual or inventor has an idea, the challenge is how do you take that idea through what we call the proof of concept and the prototype phase to make it really come to life, so that some type of investor would want to invest in that technology."
McAleer is the executive director for USTAR, an initiative created by the Utah Legislature in 2006 which invests in research into novel technologies. He says federal agencies usually don't fund this type of translational research, which nurtures inventions into products.
"We saw an opportunity using the technology commercialization grants to fund this gap and to try to accelerate the growth of new jobs in Utah from new technology."
The inventions are out there. They run the gamut from biomedical devices, to products for aviation, homeland security, alternative energy, and outdoor recreation. During the recession, USTAR was given 3.6 million in federal stimulus dollars, which were turned into small grants to help inventors fund their projects. One of them is Scott Sundberg, who was an engineering graduate student at the University of Utah. Sundberg grew up in Salt Lake City and loved physics and math classes during high school and college. As a graduate student, he saw how he could apply this passion.
"That's why I got interested in the medical side, I wanted to make improvements in medical care, so that's my main interest in why I chose this field," says Sundberg.
Sundberg may soon succeed in this goal. He and University of Utah researchers Bruce Gale and Carl Wittwer are developing a system to detect individual cancer cells floating in the blood. Engineering professor Gale says the level of tumor cells in the blood may be an indicator of prognosis in some cancer patients.
"So when someone has cancer or a tumor, these tumors will literally shed cells out into the blood. And if you can find those cells you have an idea of maybe how bad the cancer is, or whether it is spreading, or where it's going. So our project was to find these cells."
It's a project that seemed perfect for USTAR's program. Soon, a $50,000 grant was on its way to Sundberg, Gale, and Wittwer.
They set to work. Gale says finding floating cancer cells is like looking for a needle in a haystack because there may be only one circulating tumor cell for every one million or even ten million white blood cells. He says Sundberg came up with an idea to divide a prepared blood sample into a thousand small chambers. This makes it easier to find the elusive cancer cells.
"The device we made uses a disc. We make a disc that looks a lot like a CD and it has a thousand different chambers on it for putting cells into it," says Gale. "You could literally just take a blood sample, do a little bit of sample preparation and we could do the test. And it would be very fast, maybe 20 to 30 minutes, and you would be able to get some good information about the status of the patient."
Researchers worldwide are working on different ways to identify these circulating tumor cells. Gale says if their system works, it will be cheaper and faster than other tests currently under development.
"The other techniques, they might cost one thousand, two thousand, ten or forty thousand dollars for some of these techniques to do one test, whereas we can just do this for maybe a few dollars. "
The trio of scientists have started a company called Espira and are well on their way toward having a prototype of their cancer cell test.
While the purpose of the technology grants were to invest in promising technologies, the purpose of the federal stimulus was to create or save jobs. According to USTAR, 176 jobs were directly funded through the technology grant program. Engineer Bruce Gale says if their cancer test succeeds, it could create dozens of jobs in the future.
"I think the state has been very wise in how they have applied some of this stimulus money. Not just hopefully stimulating today, but investing in opportunities that may repay them very handsomely."
So far, the technology grant program has lead to 30 new companies, 98 new invention prototypes, and 170 patent applications.
Now that the stimulus money has run out, inventors that have a prototype in hand and want to take their project to the next step are charged with finding private investors or tapping small business grants. Many of them have, raising $20.3 million total in private capital investment, according to USTAR.
As for Espira, they were awarded one year of funding from a new Utah commercialization grant program, and they have the potential for a second year of funding. They are also in discussion with possible collaborators, and if they can tempt additional investors, hope to have a product on the market within five years.