Services Enable Proof of Concept

By Anna Lynn Spitzer

Irvine, CA, November 26th, 2013-- Most would-be entrepreneurs know that marketplace innovation requires a great idea, a strategic business plan and solid financial backing. Also essential to kick-starting new products: proof-of-concept and prototyping services, something inventors may have trouble finding.

Collins, BioPico CEO, uses all available services. 
(Photos: Lori Brandt)

These services, which run the gamut from software development to micro-system integration, are available at Calit2, and were spotlighted this month at the institute’s Igniting Technology event on Nov. 14 in the Calit2 Auditorium.

Martens, opened the program by emphasizing the importance to inventors of understanding revenue models. “When you’re trying to put together proof of concept [for] venture capitalists or a company that might want the product, why will they care?” he said. “You need to tie your proof of concept to a revenue model that makes sense for your market.”

Guiliana also addressed a common misconception about patents. “Patents are not for protecting inventions. They are for protecting revenue.

John Collins is CEO of startup BioPico Systems. The company develops novel cell-sorting technology for use in bio-diagnostics and therapeutic devices.

BioPico, located in Calit2’s TechPortal incubator, makes use of nearly all of the institute’s proof-of-concept facilities and services, including microfluidics, nanotechnology and biosensor facilities, and electronics prototyping, according to Collins.

 “We can give you first-hand experience,” he told the audience. “We’ve made use of every facility in Calit2 … to meet all of our needs for fabrication and rapid prototyping.”

Collins also mentioned the role played by Calit2 in his company’s successful funding efforts. “We’ve had success in the collaboration with Calit2. In all these proposals, Dr. G.P. Li and others have written letters of support,” he said, referring to the grants from DOD, NIH and NSF that have funded BioPico."


From left, Bachman, Zhang, Tackett and Li share their expertise.




Mark Bachman, engineering professor, entrepreneur and manager of Calit2’s eHealth Collaboratory, lauded the institute’s approach to innovation. “Calit2 is not like other institutions on campus,” he said. “Its mission is to integrate and deploy technologies. The main focus is to take technology out of the university… and make it usable for commercialization. That’s why we work very closely with our industry partners and the venture capital community.”

Calit2 focuses on solutions, not specific technology, he added, an approach that relies heavily on collaboration. “We’re good at technology but we really like to integrate [different technologies] together. That’s what we’re really good at here and it’s a unique role on campus.”

An array of items manufactured with 3D printing are displayed.

Bachman, who has collaborated with a long list of companies and government agencies over the years, told the audience that the institute’s goal is to enhance all levels of the “value chain” – from materials and processes to systems, products and applications. 

“We have strong affiliations and a long history of working with industry, and we are good at getting grants and funding from the government; often we do both at the same time.”

Another Calit2 strength, he said, is working closely with the venture funding community. “Companies can’t make it if they don’t have a tangible product they can show people,” Bachman explained. “We put something together that now you can take to an investor or put on Kickstarter or whatever, so this is the real deal. We really do make these things.”

Several prototypes have sprung from research projects in the eHealth Collaboratory. There are wireless systems for tracking, recording and transmitting physiological data; exer-gaming applications, which use video games to enhance and measure exercise; tablet applications for tracking pain and connecting patients with their doctors; and biomedical devices for small assays and delivering drugs.

“[Calit2] has a lot of great instrumentation but our greatest resource is our people and our understanding of technology. As innovators, we’ll help you innovate,” he said. “We have a lot of experience moving ideas into working proof of concepts and translating them into commercialization. I consider us an incubator for innovation.”

Arthur Zhang is Calit2’s technology manager, coordinating prototyping and proof-of-concept services for both Calit2 and CalPlug, the California Plug Load Research Center headquartered in the Calit2 Building. Zhang focused on the specifics: “What can you expect when you come to us?” 

Among the services he mentioned: engineering assistance; a behavior group, which studies consumer behavior and conducts preliminary market testing; policy experts; electronics fabrication and integration; product testing, including benchtop testing and simulation labs; a survey design group, which conducts usability studies; and software development.

Zhang emphasized that the services are geared to producing a one-off result. “We’re not going to be able to produce 10 or 100 prototypes; that’s not our scope,” he said, adding that the idea is to help inventors prove their concept to potential investors. Most projects are turned around in less than two years.

Zhang showed the audience examples of completed work. They included: 
•    A high-power, low-form-factor, remote-control radio-frequency switch 10 times more powerful than existing switches. 
•    A “smart” RFID tag that can monitor temperature of blood bags. 
•    A Web-based ERP (enterprise resource planning) system platform that synchronizes with users’ cell phones, computers or tablets to provide real-time manufacturing updates and alerts. 

One ongoing project, he said, is a one-and-a-half year contract with the California Energy Commission to create an energy-saving set-top box. “Our prototype has proven in the lab that it can save at least 50 percent” of the 20-40 watts used by current models, he said, translating to about $4 billion annually in electricity savings.

“That’s the kind of problem we can help solve.”

Also in the pipeline: a program that will display electricity usage information on a user’s television set. The data will “pop up” on the TV, “just like a weather report,” Zhang said. 

And a consumer study on set-top box users’ frustration thresholds is designed to help identify timing for returning sleep mode setting to full service. “It’s very clear. You can save as much energy as you want but the end user wants the service to be delivered on time. You can’t let them wait a half-hour for the TV to come on, no matter how much energy you’re saving.”

Ed Tackett is director of RapidTech, the National Center for Rapid Technologies, located at UCI. The nonprofit organization, funded by NSF, specializes in training students in 3D printing and additive manufacturing.

According to Tackett, governments and universities are really good at basic research, but most of it dies before it reaches the marketplace. RapidTech seeks to change that dynamic. “We’re trying to level the playing field,” he said, by teaching 3D printing and additive manufacturing to the next generation of engineers.

The center assists companies and individuals with early stage concept and design services. “We do additive manufacturing and process consulting,” Tackett said. “We’ll talk to a company, take a look at your processes and see if it’s viable.”
Tackett clarified that the center doesn’t do electronics, app development, social studies or ergonomics. “There are departments on campus that do that,” he said. “I build things.”

The center does an initial assessment to determine if it is feasible to manufacture the product. If so, a team – including undergraduates – is assembled. “Since our center is grounded in the education side, we engage undergraduates on almost every project we do,” Tackett explained. “This allows us to better educate our students through project-based learning and it lets us see future directions where we should be moving.” 

Most projects are completed within 24 hours. Tackett told the audience he recently printed a drug delivery molecule in just more than one hour.

Other completed prototypes include a controller for Nintendo’s Wii and parts on the space shuttle Challenger and the International Space Station.

3D printing, which has been in existence for 30 years, is growing by leaps and bounds. Currently a $600 million industry, it is expected to balloon to $4.8 billion by 2017. Companies like Hewlett Packard and IBM are seeking to enter the market, according to Tackett.

Today, hearing aids are the largest consumer item printed in 3D, followed by dental devices. In the near future, he said, look for 3D printing of transistor arrays, cells (including replacement cartilage and muscle tissue), and machine tooling.

The evening’s last speaker was Calit2 Irvine Division Director G.P. Li, who addressed Calit2’s approach to innovation, as well as the capabilities offered by the institute’s clean rooms.

Calit2 seeks to use its facilities to deliver “A-to-A innovative solutions,” Li said, explaining that this refers to “atoms to application.”

Three major industries – biomedical devices, information technology and communications, and clean tech – are “in our backyard,” he said, and Calit2’s goal is to create an ecosystem that enables shared success.

Physicians or inventors from the community often have great ideas but don’t have engineering backgrounds, Li said. 
“In Calit2, we work with our partners, faculty, researchers and students to come up with a design, go through the fabrication process to make a functional device, and make it work.”

Li described the two clean rooms: the INRF (Integrated Nanosystems Research Facility) focuses on inorganic materials like semiconductors and ceramics, while BiON (Biological Organic Nanofabrication) focuses on biological samples as well as organic materials. Also available is LEXI, the Laboratory for Electron and XRay Instrumentation.

The 70+ pieces of equipment in the two clean rooms can print any pattern down to 20 nanometers, which then can be processed to create functional devices on demand. Among the successful results: carbon nanotubes that can detect single molecules; nanowires that could be used as gas or chemical sensors; and MEMS printed circuit boards for micro-relay systems. 

LEXI's high-end scanning electron microscopes have sub-nanometers resolutions; atomic force microscopes and other tools in the lab allow for detailed examination of material structure.

“But it’s not just the facilities,” Li emphasized. “We provide infrastructure but we also have a lot of great researchers on campus to work with you and with us.”

More than 100 companies have partnered with Calit2 by supporting projects or licensing technology out of the institute, Li told the audience. Those collaborations have borne more than 300 invention disclosures as well as more than 100 patents. “That’s the power of the intellectual achievement in the university,” he said. “We have done a lot of technology transfer to local companies.”

In addition, Calit2 has provided foundry services to innovators who lack access to high-end facilities like INRF or BiON. “This creates a win-win scenario,” Li said.

Calit2 also leases the facilities to companies concerned about sharing their intellectual property; in 2001 one such company made their prototypes in the clean rooms, parlaying them into $15 million from venture capitalists. A few years later, Li said, the company was sold for $200 million.

Additionally, the institute supports funding proposals and offers technology transfer assistance. “We take a holistic approach,” Li summarized. 

“By working together to create a bigger ecosystem to meet everyone’s needs, we can ignite economic development in our region.”

An audience question-and-answer session followed the presentations, after which participants networked, enjoyed a buffet dinner and visited exhibit tables in the Calit2 Atrium.