By Anna Lynn Spitzer
Irvine, CA, January 14th, 2014 -- Three new tenants, all of whose pioneering products are the result of UC Irvine research projects, are now calling Calit2’s TechPortal business technology incubator home.
Defineqa (pronounced De-fin'-a-ka) headed by Arlene Doria and Nick Martin, is producing a multi-step microfluidic chip, which can serve as a one-stop, point-of-service diagnostic tool for a variety of conditions. Most microfluidic platforms require a complex system of heterogeneous components to perform a full assay. Furthermore, expensive pumping equipment often must be interfaced with a chip. Defineqa utilizes a small component called a piezo-electric transducer that is activated by a battery. This technology simplifies processes, reduces cost and allows multiple procedures to be performed on a single-layer chip.
GK Materials, guided by postdoctoral fellow Aaron Kushner, is creating a revolutionary self-healing material, which offers shape memory, energy absorption and dynamic repair of tiny fissures caused by stress, temperature and other variables. The platform could one day prevent disasters such as the Challenger explosion and the Macondo well blowout with materials that self-repair long before they can fail.
And Shoelace Wireless, led by former postdoctoral student Ahn Le, is creating an application that combines networks and aggregates their bandwidth, resulting in higher quality, quicker downloads and less buffering time. The software-based solution, which connects proximate devices, has proven to download (or upload) content up to eight times as fast as a single device.
Inexpensive, multipurpose microfluidic chips are at the core of Defineqa’s first product. Founder Doria previously worked in quality control at a point
of-care diagnostics company (point of care refers to technology that provides immediate results), and had dreamed of creating the next-generation of these diagnostic tools. That quest led her back to graduate school and into the lab of biomedical engineering professor Abe Lee, where her research led to formation of the company.
Defineqa – the name is an amalgamation of Define and QA (quality assurance) – takes aim at current microfluidic technology, which is capable of conducting an analysis only one step at a time. For example, to analyze a blood sample, current technology requires the plasma to be separated out first using a different process.
“In our chip, we’re basically using the same technology each step of the way, from sample preparation down to detection,” Doria says.
The innovative technology substitutes inexpensive, off-the-shelf piezo-electric transducers, similar to those that power crystal quartz watches, for traditional and often expensive pumping equipment. The transducer, activated by a battery, produces ultrasound vibration which in turn activates air pockets built into the chip’s geometry. This technology, which the company calls SoundStream, can filter, mix and move the sample through the chip’s microchannels.
“That same geometry is what allows us to do the sample preparation; it takes the place of a filter, which can introduce a lot of variability to the process,” explains graduate student Nick Martin, company co-founder and vice president of research & development. “It’s like killing two birds with one stone. And the two birds – sample prep and fluid pumping – are two of the bigger technical challenges that confront a lot of these diagnostics.”
As Doria set about creating technology that could be used for both plasma separation and analysis, she realized her approach could easily enable additional applications. She began using the device to detect C-reactive protein (CRP), a marker for inflammation associated with chronic conditions like cardiovascular disease and stroke. Because the technology is miniaturized, it’s easy to integrate onto hand-held devices.
The company’s first prototype is integrating the chip with a smart phone app, creating a user-friendly platform for patients to correlate their CRP levels with their food intake and exercise data. It’s as simple as pricking your finger, adding the blood to a wireless device containing a disposable chip, and seeing the results on your phone.
Martin says the popularity of blood glucose testing devices for diabetics bodes well for Defineqa’s innovations. “We think there’s a huge market for applying this type of technology to other kinds of medical applications,” he says.
GK Materials was born in the lab of UCI chemistry professor Zhibin Guan, as Kushner worked toward his doctorate. When professor and student saw the material’s potential, they decided to commercialize.
Funded by an NSF STTR (Small Business Technology Transfer) grant, the process starts with off-the-shelf ingredients, including monomers and solvents. Chemical synthesis in a lab reactor, which Kushner describes as resembling a Mr. Coffee machine, produces polymers, which after drying self-assemble into nearly failure-proof nanocomposites.
Chemical properties inherent in the substance mean there will always be a tradeoff between strength/stiffness and the material’s self-healing capability (stiffer materials can’t heal as easily), but Kushner says the product is leaps and bounds ahead of previous generations, which were available in one grade only: soft.
“We can control the stiffness, strength and mechanical property while still maintaining the dynamic nature [of the material],” he says, adding that the process is inspired by nature’s approach to designing self-healing capabilities. Advances in chemical synthesis, which offer new ways to manipulate molecules and form bonds, he adds, has led to “a whole smart materials revolution.”
“When the chemical bonds on regular plastics break, they’re done,” Kushner says. The composition of GK Materials’ nanocomposites, however, includes a dynamic phase with many reversible bonds, which spontaneously re-form when they are damaged.
The material efficiently dissipates energy as well, making it an ideal candidate for football helmets, combat helmets, sound-damping equipment and a wide range of aerospace applications. “The same molecular mechanism that makes it self-heal also makes it extremely energy absorbent,” Kushner explains.
Because the material’s bonds can dynamically reconstruct themselves, the substance can produce products that won’t wear out. “When you fold current polymer plastics 20 times, there will be cracks at those joints,” says Kushner. “With our material, mechanical fatigue should not be part of the equation in the lifetime of the devices.”
Other potential applications include 3D printing inks and filaments, self-healing rocket and satellite propellants, flexible electronics displays, transparent armor-embedded electronics, and a host of unknown possibilities.
“It’s a little like 3D printing or the TV in the 1930s,” Kushner says. “People didn’t know what they would ultimately become; they were just playing with this new tool. That’s kind of where we are now.”
How many times have you tried to watch a video on your mobile device only to find it stalling for several minutes while it downloads and/or buffers?
Shoelace Wireless can help. The company has developed a cooperative networking technology that aggregates all available networks on a single device as well as on nearby devices to speed up content delivery on mobile devices.
“There are multiple networks around you, and right now you can only use one of them at a time,” says Anh Le, the company’s chief technology officer. “Our solution allows you to use all the networks around you at the same time. We combine the networks and aggregate the bandwidth upload or download capacity.”
On a single device, users can aggregate their device’s Wi-Fi and cellular networks to double their speed of download. And if Wi-Fi is not available, Le says, the technology can aggregate all cellular networks available on nearby devices, allowing all the devices in the area to download (or upload) content much more quickly. “And it is software only, so it’s very compelling for people who want to perform higher bandwidth-intensive applications without any infrastructure changes.”
The technology, which began as Le’s graduate research project under EECS professor Athina Markopoulou, currently can connect up to eight devices, increasing download and upload speeds up to eight times. And, it works across carriers; if you have Verizon and another phone in the vicinity has AT&T, the technology still aggregates the networks.
The company recently released an app called “VideoBee,” available free on GooglePlay. VideoBee demonstrates the technology by speeding up video streaming from popular websites such as YouTube, Vimeo, etc. An iOS version is under development. Shoelace Wireless also is assembling a Software Development Kit (SDK) that can be imported into other developers’ software codes. The SDK provides advanced functionality and is a product that Le hopes to sell to content providers such as YouTube, Hulu and Netflix, who could build it into their own software to boost connections.
Finally, the company is in talks with device manufacturers to integrate the technology at the system level. “This would be an advanced functionality that would differentiate a device from other manufacturers, and give them an edge over competitors,” Le says.
The company appears off to a solid start. Le says they have received positive feedback from end users, as well as those in academia and industry. And the app was voted one of the five best new startup technologies last May by the CTIA Wireless Association in its Wireless Innovation Open Mic “Startup Throw Down” competition, and won second place in the Mobile App Competition at the ACM Mobicom 2013 event, a premier academic venue.
Le says that while VideoBee is already demonstrating success, future success will hinge on selling the SDK to providers and manufacturers. “I’m comfortable with doing research; I’ve been doing it for eight years,” he says. “But selling products is a different story. It’s a wild ride.”