By LAURA LOREK
Reporter with Silicon Hills News
The 3-D printing industry started at UT with Carl Deckard, a graduate student in mechanical engineering and Professor Joseph Beaman. Also, Professor John Goodenough created the lithium-ion rechargeable battery.
During the last decade, UT’s Office of Technology Commercialization has helped license technology to start 64 companies, including 48 in Texas, according to its latest report.
To nurture big ideas, Bob Metcalfe, Ethernet inventor and UT professor of innovation, heads up a monthly gathering, called The stARTup Studio, along with Ben Dyer and Louise Epstein, who run the Innovation Center at UT with Metcalfe.
At the event last week, three professors presented their companies, Nova Minds, Heliotrope and Silicon Audio to a small group of industry experts, entrepreneurs, investors and other invited guests at WeWork on Congress. The UT Austin Office of Technology Commercialization, the Austin Chamber of Commerce and WeWork Austin sponsor the events.
“We’re not trying to get them to exchange their lab coat for a brief case,” said Epstein, managing director of the UT Innovation Center. “But we want to help propel their inventions to impact the world…Our job is to help them get to the next level.”
At the event, Donglei “Emma” Fan, an assistant professor in the department of mechanical engineering at UT, presented Nova Minds, an early-stage startup focused on innovative technologies for biomedical research sensing and drug delivery. Frank Zhu is the Chief Executive Officer and Fan is the Chief Technology Officer. Fan “is the inventor of “Electric Tweezers” that can precisely manipulate nanoscale materials in aqueous suspension by combined AC and DC electric fields,” according to her online profile.
Her company is developing high-speed motorized bio-nanosensors. When the materials are reduced through nanotechnology to the tiny size of a fraction of the width of a strand of hair, the sensors can be used for early stage detection of cancer.
Nova Minds is also developing technology for 3-D porous thin films. They could be used for wearable bandages to monitor vital signs or to monitor athletic performance.
In one example, Fan showed a slide with a picture of a young girl playing a violin and said the bandage could be attached to her arm to detect correct posture. Or it could be used to train golfers, she said.
For the next step, Fan plans to apply for National Science Foundation Small Business Innovation Research, known as SBIR, grants.
Heliotrope TechnologiesThe next presenter, Delia Milliron, co-founder of Heliotrope Technologies, is the Chief Scientific Officer at the early-stage startup that is developing new materials and manufacturing processes for electrochromic devices focused on creating energy-saving smart windows.
“It’s a company,” Milliron said. “It’s not about research. Our goal is to make money and to build a highly profitable company producing smart glass.”
The company, founded in 2013 and based in Berkeley, Calif., created a dynamic window coating of nanocrystals to control light and heat transmission. The windows with the coating can switch between three states: transparent, heat blocking and heat and light blocking. The window can be powered for a year with a couple of double A batteries, Milliron said.
Heliotrope is developing its products for the residential and commercial glass market, with a market size of $16 billion worldwide for smart glass, growing at 5 percent annually. It is also looking into the automobile market.
“It’s a good time for this market play,” Milliron said.
Buildings consume 40 percent of all the energy in the U.S. in lighting control and for air conditioning and heat, Milliron said. The smart windows have the potential to greatly reduce energy costs and to save money and reduce the impact on the environment.
The company received a $3 million grant from the Department of Energy, $1 million National Science Foundation SBIR grant and it has received private seed stage funding. Milliron moved to Austin a year ago and is an associate professor in chemical engineering at UT.
“We see that this is the future for smart glass that this is going to become the standard,” Milliron said.
The biggest hurdle for widespread adoption right now is cost, Milliron said. Today, it costs $50 per square foot for Heliotrope’s smart window technology, they are working to get the cost down to $25 a square foot, she said.Silicon Audio
The final presenter, Silicon Audio, has been around the longest and already has a few products on the market. Neal Hall, an assistant professor in electrical and computer engineering at UT, founded the company in 2007.
Silicon Audio created an optical seismometer that records at much lower frequencies. It began creating the device in 2008 and in 2012 showed a prototype to a company in the oil and gas industry, Hall said. The company funded the development and now the product is commercially available, he said.
In 2007, Silicon Audio created a very sensitive, high fidelity microphone for smartphones. The company found a partner for that technology, Hall said.
With capital from two successful projects, Silicon Audio is now developing a magnet-free small-scale radio wave circulator to be placed on a microchip in a cell phone, Hall said. The device has the potential to revolutionize radar and wireless applications, by allowing a cell phone to send and receive data twice as fast on the same channel simultaneously.
“It’s the future of 5G communications,” Hall said. Right now, the communications standard is 4G, but 5G communications is expected by 2020.
Coe Schlicher, CEO of Silicon Audio, said the company looks for a unique technology that is at the inventor level and then works to create a marketable product. Next, they usually apply for a government research grant to develop the product. They generally skip pitching to a venture capitalist and instead go directly to a customer, Schlicher said. That customer invests $2 million to $6 million to bring the product to market, he said.
But with the circulator, Silicon Audio is looking at getting outside funding, Schlicher said. Andrea Alu is an associate professor of electrical and computer engineering at UT and his group members, invented the circulator technology. UT licensed it exclusively to Silicon Audio. Alu is the Chief Technology Officer of Silicon Audio RF Circulator, an affiliated company created in 2014 to bring his technology to market.
The circulator solves a real and growing problem, Schlicher said. Today, radio frequency bandwidth is limited and its availability is decreasing. Up until now, the only solution is to build more cell towers, Schlicher said. But Silicon Audio solves that problem and allows people to send and receive information simultaneously resulting in fewer dropped calls and jammed Wi-Fi signals, he said.
Silicon Audio’s RF Circulator costs ten times less, it’s 100 times smaller and 100 times lighter, Schlicher said.