From Concept to Commercialization

As never before, academic researchers are breaking down the walls that have traditionally separated them from the outside world. No longer holed up in solitary laboratories behind ivy-covered walls, today’s researchers are forging connections to the outside world at an increasingly rapid rate.

Nowhere is this entrepreneurial drive more apparent than in the College of Engineering, where connecting academic discoveries with marketplace delivery is routine. In fact, over 85 percent of Purdue commercialization revenue comes from technologies associated with the College of Engineering, according to Simran Trana, director of the Office for Technology Commercialization in the Purdue Research Park.

This issue of Engineering Impact offers a comprehensive look at entrepreneurship in the College, examining enterprise at its youngest, its most mature, and all levels in between. It is increasingly apparent that Purdue researchers are connecting their ideas with the outside world in innumerable and fascinating ways, ways that are at once both profitable and beneficial to society.

Michael Capano: Pitching a Product

Michael Capano’s research path has, until recently, been a straight one, focusing on semiconductor fabrication processes using silicon carbide. But in 2006, the professor of electrical and computer engineering ventured down a side street that has taken him in a new direction that could lead to enterprise.

“I realized that silicon carbide was becoming a mature technology and began looking for my next research activity,” he says. His search took him to a related area—graphene, a carbon-based electronic material that can be used to manufacture next-generation transistors for consumer electronics. In a relatively short time, Capano’s research group developed a way to grow graphene to a quality that is as good, he says, as that produced by any lab in the world.

The side street, it turned out, led to a global interstate and the quest for commercialization. Capano is determined to stay in the lead of the graphene electronics and materials race, ahead of competition from the academic and industrial worlds, including Georgia Tech, IBM, the Naval Research Center, Teledyne, and Northrop-Grumann.

“It’s fun being in the leadership position, but I feel the need to push on, be aggressive and find better ways of growing our material,” he says. “There’s a tremendous opportunity here, and you can’t let those opportunities come and go.”

Capano — researcher and professor — has added a new title to his list: entrepreneur. He has traveled extensively in the last year, drumming up interest for the nascent company. He is the front man of the research group, talking to venture capitalists, hiring legal counsel, and spreading the word at events such as the 2008 University Research and Entrepreneurship Symposium, which took place in Boston in April. It’s a busy time for him; in one 16-day period this spring, he made four trips. While some researchers shy away from the business side of startups, Capano seems to thrive in the environment.

It takes some types of research a decade or more to approach commercialization. Capano’s enterprise, however, is moving along quickly. In two short years, the team’s idea has entered the enterprise stream. That’s the nature of electrical engineering, he says. “In the electronics field, you have to be fast. If you’re not, you’ll get crushed.”

Growing graphene, like growing a business, is an expensive prospect. It will cost an estimated $25 million to get the company going, which is why venture capitalists are crucial to the success of the plan. Indiana 21st Century funds have provided seed money but not enough to cover equipment and staffing needs. The group is now at a point where it needs an additional $2 million to enter the next phase of development. Without it, the project will fail. So Capano pushes on. “I have a few years ahead of me dealing with this,” he says. But the ultimate payoff, a graphene manufacturing facility, would be good for the group and Purdue and could boost Indiana’s economy.

Hugh Hillhouse: Landing a Deal

Hugh Hillhouse holds a small, metal sculpture in the palm of his hand. Though shaped like a cube, it has more in common with a rolled up sheet of paper. Its beauty belies its strength.

The sculpture is a model of a surface that defines what is called a double-gyroid structure. Hillhouse has developed nanoporous films and nanowire arrays defined by this structure that are the end-product of a nearly decade-long quest for small diameter semiconductor wire arrays as the active component in next-generation solar cells. Solar cells based on the technology have the potential to be more energy efficient than any other existing today and could displace the existing technology of power applications, Hillhouse says.

Hillhouse, an associate professor who joined Purdue’s chemical engineering faculty in 2002, researches the development of nanomaterials and new devices for energy conversion. As part of this effort, he has developed membranes with small pores—less than five nanometers in diameter—to template the formation of small diameter semiconductor wires. In fact, they are the smallest diameter wires ever synthesized from the materials he works with. Hillhouse and his team are the first to develop a method to make the films so that they self assemble, which means they form automatically under the proper laboratory conditions without costly manufacturing processes.

The technique, protected by a provisional patent that was filed in 2006, could dramatically lower the cost of electricity from solar cells and is suitable for mass manufacturing at reasonable prices. This could lead to solar cells that are economically competitive with other forms of power generation, such as coal-fired power plants.

“The energy problem has been prescient on my mind for a very long time,” Hillhouse says. “Fossil fuel resources will run out, and issues with CO2 emissions and the burning of fossil fuels make it imperative that we develop clean energy and find ways to make it happen.”

In April, Hillhouse took his idea to the marketplace and formed NanoG, a limited liability corporation that is backed by a group of private investors. Hillhouse is chief scientific advisor of the company.

The recently launched company will now work on development of solar cells and creation of a prototype suitable for manufacturing.

“I want the ideas and processes that we develop in my lab to get turned into useful things,” he says. “I will participate as much as needed to get the company started, then I’ll return to what I really love doing: picking problems important to society and finding ways to solve them.”

Alyssa Panitch: A Tale of Two Startups

Biomedical engineer Alyssa Panitch came to Purdue from Arizona two years ago and within a month had found commercial backing that is taking her research into the marketplace. In a twist that would make most entrepreneurs green with envy, Panitch wasn’t looking for an investor, but found one anyway.

Panitch, new to the faculty in the Weldon School of Biomedical Engineering in 2006, was in her lab working on tissue engineering when investor and entrepreneur Cynthia Lander happened by. Lander was on campus looking at technologies for her venture incubator, Nascent Enterprises, LLC, and took an interest in Panitch’s work. She told Panitch she wanted to start a company based on her research. The result is Moerae Matrix, formed in 2007 with Panitch as chief scientific officer and Nascent Enterprises as the business team.

Panitch specializes in bio-organic chemistry, with particular interest in the design and synthesis of biomaterials for drug delivery and tissue engineering. Upon joining the Purdue faculty, she began developing therapeutic peptides with colleague Brandon Seal, an assistant professor of biomedical engineering.

The peptides can enter cells and inhibit inflammatory responses that follow some surgeries and lead to scarring complications. The research could aid abdominal surgery patients, as many as 93 percent of whom have trouble with adhesions following surgeries ranging from appendectomies to hysterectomies. Panitch’s peptides could be delivered in a saline solution that is either sprayed or applied during surgery as a preventive therapy. She is also exploring its applications in tendon sheath adhesion and dermal scarring situations.

Moerae Matrix is the second company for Panitch, who formed the engineering therapeutics company Azerx while on the faculty at the University of Arizona. “As an engineer, I work on applied topics, so I am trying to develop things. It’s important to be able to see that through to the end, so entrepreneurship is key to the process,” she says.

The first company, however, was a near-burn-out experience for Panitch. “With co-founder Colleen Brophy, I really drove the company,” she says. “I did payroll, fundraising, and worked with lawyers. I have the experience now and could do that, but it’s hard to do that and be a professor. It’s not my job. The university doesn’t pay me to do that. Instead, you work with a business group and maintain your focus on the scientific, academic, and educational sides.”

Panitch says the experience in Arizona helped her develop a method for approaching drug development and commercializing the research. This laid the groundwork for the rapid birth of Moerae Matrix: research began in August 2006, went to a provisional patent in early 2007, and was quickly followed by incorporation as a company. The company is now in a fundraising stage, going through due diligence and entering Phase II of the Small Business Innovation Research Program.

Panitch, who came out of graduate school in 1997, says neither she nor many of her classmates gave entrepreneurship much thought when they were in school. Now, she says, students are eager to discuss the topic. In fall 2007, she piloted a class on advanced tissue engineering in which the students undertook entrepreneurial projects and were keenly interested in the subject.

An emerging player in the world of scientific enterprise, it becomes clear when Panitch discusses her work exactly which of her two personalities—academic and entrepreneur—she prefers. 

“If one of my therapeutics really helps, it would be nice to look back and say I had a part in improving human life,” she says, then shifts gears. “Biology is so elegantly engineered. It’s how to bring that into synthetic materials so they are more precisely designed that is what intrigues me.”

Joseph Pekny: Beyond Enterprise

When Joseph Pekny cofounded Advanced Process Combinatorics in 1993, the line between pure academia and enterprise was crisply drawn. On one side was research done for its own right and for the quest of knowledge; on the other was research turned into enterprise and profit. The two didn’t co-exist comfortably. Those days are long gone.

Pekny, a chemical engineering professor who was founding director of the Regenstrief Center for Healthcare Engineering and now heads Discovery Park’s e-Enterprise Center, is an academic. He is also an entrepreneur. And he holds strong views on the two occupations and where they intersect on university campuses.

In the early 1990s when Pekny was just starting his company, many universities didn’t emphasize or actively support entrepreneurship. By the end of the decade, however, the impact of the “Dot-Com” boom led universities to support enterprise; incubation centers such as the Purdue Research Park grew rapidly. Now, in 2008, the academic environment is fertile ground for entrepreneurs.

“It’s the best time I’ve seen in my professional life for entrepreneurship in academia,” Pekny says, who is also interim head of Industrial Engineering.

“Purdue is being influenced by forces that are playing everywhere,” Pekny says. “The speed of the economy is driving Purdue’s role in the world. People change jobs more readily and new companies go from $0 to billions. The students think differently. The faculty thinks differently. Entrepreneurship is critical to the university. If the university is going to contribute to the economy, it has to be attached to the speed of the economy.”

Pekny’s company, based on his research in combinatorial optimization, was created to fill a need he saw to help people make discrete choices, analyze all possible combinations, and either minimize waste in processes or maximize throughput. It numbers industry giants as its clients, including Coca-Cola, Eli Lilly & Company, Procter & Gamble, and the U.S. Army. In the early days, Pekny took a leave of absence from Purdue, wrote software, and did core product work. Now, with the company’s annual income pushing $2 million, he is less hands-on and more of a technical advisor.

For Pekny, the decision to commercialize was a no-brainer. “I like my research to have the maximum possible impact,” he says.” One way is to publish papers and teach students, another is to have it published in the marketplace.” Likewise, he believes that universities can have maximum impact by seeking new ways to promote entrepreneurship

“The key to staying ahead of the curve is to develop new entrepreneurial models. The traditional method of taking an idea, starting a company, and getting support from venture capital or an angel is pretty well saturated,” Pekny says. “It behooves Purdue to foster other models.”

The Chao Center, a pharmaceutical product development and small-scale manufacturing facility in Purdue Research Park, is an alternative and complementary model. It is an incubator company that supports an idea, perfects the technology, and then puts it into an instant distribution channel. According to Pekny, the global economy now moves so quickly that entrepreneurs no longer have the luxury of a 15-year period to hit that channel.

Reflecting on the place of entrepreneurship in a teaching institution, Pekny is quick to praise it. He says his own experiences out in the field have helped him become a much more effective teacher and researcher. Not only did the experience lead him to develop a class on risk management, but it informs his research and all the courses he teaches.

“We are out there engaging with companies. We tend to see the cutting-edge problems, which is huge for research and knowing what to teach students,” he says. “For example, building a new plant is very expensive, so you want to squeeze out as much waste as possible. I wouldn’t have seen certain evolving practical needs for that for several years if I hadn’t been interacting with industry partners.”

Pekny also believes firmly that universities have to nurture intrapreneurship. He points to his own involvement with the creation of the Regenstrief Center and the university’s Discovery Park, which he says were developed like startups.

“We need as much intrapreneurship as possible at Purdue for the faculty, students, and staff to be as empowered as possible to take measured risks,” he says. “Students have to be entrepreneurial and take prudent risks to achieve their goals, or they will be left behind. Entrepreneurship is a journey, not an endpoint. It’s frame of mind.”