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Hometown U: UAA seeks ways to take research projects to market

Kathleen McCoy
Plastic lifts are used to keep the rebar separated from the copper wiring at the installation of the new snowless sidewalk at the University Lake Annex Building on the campus of the University of Alaska Anchorage in Anchorage, Alaska Tuesday, Nov. 19, 2013.
Philip Hall / UAA
Workers prepare for the installation of the new snowless sidewalk at the University Lake Annex Building on the campus of the University of Alaska Anchorage in Anchorage, Alaska Tuesday, Nov. 19, 2013.
Philip Hall / UAA

On a near-zero sunny Tuesday in mid-November, workmen in T-shirts poured a new sidewalk for a University of Alaska Anchorage building just off campus near University Lake. They never felt the cold because their work site was encased in a giant plastic bubble pumped full of warm air.

This was a demonstration project for anybody interested in seeing how a sidewalk that de-ices itself gets installed. Before workers poured concrete, they adjusted frames stripped with black carbon-fiber tape. Each panel is attached to an electrode, and transformers connected to the electrodes send low voltage through the carbon-fiber strips to generate heat. On top of all that goes the concrete.

A product safety engineer from Underwriters Laboratories Inc. out of Washington state was there to certify the sidewalk's safety and place a UL sticker on its electric box. Other curious parties included folks from city public works, the state Department of Transportation, a town-home developer, the housing nonprofit NeighborWorks and an Anchorage resident with a steep driveway that stays icy and dangerous all winter.

"If this works," said homeowner Larry Chen, "I want it."

The self-de-icing pavement is the first tangible fruit of a two-year drive to commercialize research by UAA faculty and students. This particular invention comes from Joey Yang, a professor of civil engineering who usually works on structural bridge safety, but ice problems at his own house fired him up to find a better solution than continually chipping it away. His new company, CFT Solutions, is looking for customers and commercial work space to begin manufacturing the panels.

Taking products like Yang's to market is Helena Wisniewski's mission. She is vice provost for research and graduate studies at UAA. Two years ago, when she arrived from Stevens Institute of Technology in Hoboken, N.J., she quickly launched the UAA Innovate awards, an annual pot of $200,000 in seed money for research, creative works and projects that might yield a patent and eventually income for the inventor and the university. Yang's idea was one of the first winners.

So far, Innovate dollars have contributed to 29 invention disclosures from faculty or students, 12 patents pending and two startup companies: Yang's CFT Solutions and Zensor, a company to manufacture cheap, battery-free wireless sensors for remote monitoring, developed by John Lund, a former UAA electrical engineering professor.

Other patents pending include a one-handed tool used in back surgery that lets doctors quickly shape support rods in the operating room; a mouth guard that collects data on head impact; a process for locating mineral deposits without the upfront costs of exploratory drilling; isolating the chemical compound in blueberries that staves off dementia; and a battery-operated knife that allows for more precise incisions during eye surgery.

To accommodate this new commercial direction, the UA Board of Regents approved Wisniewski's plan to create two entrepreneurial entities, Seawolf Holdings LLC and the Seawolf Venture Fund.

The first company holds equity in the startups on behalf of UAA and limits university liability. The Seawolf Venture Fund will finance startups emerging from university research. To date, it has raised $1.5 million and is targeting $10 million. The fund is intended to benefit companies like CFT Solutions and Zensor; CFT is seeking an additional $500,000.

Wisniewski said she's happy with the pace of things. When she was at Stevens Institute of Technology, she launched nine startups and sold two. "One or two a year is about right," she said. Then it can take three to five years to build a company before it's attractive for acquisition.

She is especially proud of the team leading Seawolf Holdings LLC. Wisniewski as president is joined by Thomas Hook, CEO of Greatbatch Inc., a publicly traded company on the New York Stock Exchange; Stephen Socolof of New Venture Programs; John Wanamaker of Alaska Venture Partners; John Sibert, founding chairman of the National Association of Seed & Venture Funds; John Bischoff, former CFO of AOL; and UAA's provost, Elisha "Bear" Baker.

Springwell Partners, a private equity firm from Connecticut, has joined Seawolf Venture to manage that fund. What distinguishes the fund is access to new ideas coming right out of UAA, or as investors call it, a steady "deal flow."

All this demonstrates that Wisniewski has brought her experience and connections to Alaska. Partnerships and networks add expertise that can strengthen funding proposals, she said.

"In coming here two years ago, I saw a lot of untapped potential," she said. "There's more to come."

Indeed, she recently filed UAA's application to become a Center of Excellence for the Department of Homeland Security. That agency operates 12 such centers at universities around the United States to continually assess all kinds of risk, from terrorism to microbial hazards to food security.

This national center will focus on providing near real-time information on man-made and natural catastrophic events along the country's coastlines. How do you predict these events, prepare for them and survive them? With increasing arctic activity and Alaska's long shoreline, Wisniewski hopes UAA will be a serious contender.

Money for the center will be awarded in April 2014. Whichever university receives it will develop a facility to monitor coastline anomalies around the country. Partners in UAA's proposal include other coastline states that would benefit from the program, including Louisiana, Maryland, New York, California and Canada. Even the Port of Anchorage is a partner.

Just applying is an important step, Wisniewski said. If UAA's bid is not successful, she will still have forged new government and business connections around the country that can help put Alaska's potential on their radar.

Kathleen McCoy works at UAA, where she highlights campus life through social and online media.


Kathleen McCoy
Hometown U