Posted: January 01, 2009
Driven by genius
Colorado Inventor Showcase winnersBy Eric Peterson
Beacon Biotechnology CEO Fred Mitchell with a disease-sensing chip for the BrightSPOT Reader. (Photo by Mark Manger)
The state’s inventors strutted their latest stuff at November’s Colorado Inventor Showcase at the University of Denver’s Daniels Cable Center. The DaVinci Institute event, also sponsored by ColoradoBiz, featured innovations in everything from software to toilet seats, with the judges naming five inventions — the BrightSPOT Reader, VanDyne SuperTurbo, BioHAWT, AlchemyGrid and Fiberlight — as the year’s best.
Inventor of the Year: Beacon Biotechnology team for the BrightSPOT Reader
The 2008 Inventor of the Year is not a person, but Beacon Biotechnology LLC’s Aurora-based team.
"There are three entities that contributed IP (Intellectual Property)," Beacon CEO Fred Mitchell says. "Combining the three pieces makes something completely different and very powerful."
The first entity, Arizona-based Prolume, contributed a synthetic luminescent blue molecule found in deep-sea crustaceans that is thousands of times brighter than that of a firefly. The second firm, Colorado-based imaging specialists Black Forest Engineering, added a light-sensing chip. And the third contributor, Aurora-based Avidity, bonded Prolume’s light-generating molecules to Black Forest’s light sensors.
The end result is the disposable BrightSPOT Reader, "a product that detects infectious disease," Mitchell says. "We can do over 100 tests on one chip, and one chip handles a single drop of blood. If it’s positive, a spot lights up. The results are much more predictable than traditional methods."
The exact position of the spot corresponds to a given disease, tipping off a PDA-based reader to deliver test results on the spot. "You’re able to do this at the point of care," Mitchell says. "The current way of testing people, you have to have a lab that runs the test nearby." Mitchell says there are some "dipstick" tests on the market, but they "do not have the degree of differentiation of our test."
With regard to Third World HIV testing, the BrightSPOT Reader "is less expensive than processing in a lab, and it also has an increased value because it happens in the village," Mitchell says. Health-care providers can take measures immediately, "rather than go back later and find that person who tested positive — and everybody that person has slept with."
Beacon’s team used HIV antibodies sourced from the National Institute of Health to test its concept and was able to perform simultaneous detection of multiple diseases. The goal is to develop a commercially viable prototype in 18 months.
"Our goal is an infectious disease chip that would look at HIV and hepatitis infections," he adds. Both diseases actually encompass "a number of different species," and one chip could detect and differentiate the variances.
The target market is global, with a focus on HIV-ravaged Africa. With a background in the medical device industry, Mitchell initially got involved as an investor in Beacon Biotechnology in 2007, and then was recruited as the company’s chief executive in late summer 2008.
"I used to run a hospital chemistry lab and later worked for Bayer Diagnostics. I had a long background in medical devices. I saw the power this technology had."
The company’s staff consists of two full-time scientists, plus Chief Financial Officer Larry Lansing and Chief Technical Officer Millard Cull, who also are the CFO and CEO, respectively, of Avidity. At times, Avidity lends technical and manpower help. Both Beacon and Avidity call Fitzsimons Bioscience Park in Aurora home.
"We’re a young company, so part of what we’re doing is fundraising," adds Mitchell, citing a short-term goal of $3 million to get the BrightSPOT Reader into a commercially attractive state and a long-term goal of $20 million to bring a product to the domestic market. www.beaconbiotechnology.com
Consumer Product of the Year: re:thought (BioHAWT), Robert Irwin
Robert Irwin, the co-founder of Denver-based sustainable services firm re:thought, looked to Mother Nature for inspiration with the BioHAWT (an acronym for biomimetic horizontal axis wind turbine).
Studying industrial design at the Art Institute of Colorado in 2005, Irwin began envisioning a wind turbine for the residential market. "I was concerned with the ongoing need for energy," Irwin says. "The renewable energy sector is exciting to me."
But instead of looking to the old windmills on the Colorado plains, he took design cues from such influences as Nautilus shells and pine cones.
"Biomimicry is a method where you study principles of nature and apply them to man-made objects," Irwin says. It follows that his turbine blades are built based on the progression of phi ¬— a.k.a. the golden ratio, or approximately 1.618 — in its design. "If nature’s had billions of years to evolve, there’s got to be some great design. It makes the blades highly efficient."
Besides its biomimetic design, the BioHAWT is also unique because of the integrated generator. "The generator is built right into the apparatus," Irwin says.
Irwin says the power generated by the BioHAWT — about 400 watts — can be used to separate water into hydrogen and oxygen to be stored for future use as fuel or charge a battery.
"If it was running at optimal speed, it could probably power a refrigerator," Irwin says.
The BioHAWT is still in development phase, Irwin says, but he hopes to land financing to bring the product to market by 2011. In the meantime, re:thought has plenty of other offerings, including LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) consulting and certification and other green product design.
Commercial Product of the Year: Vandyne SuperTurbo, Ed VanDyne
The concept of a superturbocharger was most notably used on aircraft during World War II, but it has spent most of its postwar years in mothballs.
Ed VanDyne, president, CEO and CTO of VanDyne SuperTurbo Inc., has revived the concept by migrating it from air to land for use in more efficient automobiles.
"The key to the efficiency game is making engines smaller with the same power as a bigger engine," says VanDyne, touting his SuperTurbo as a 30 percent efficiency boost to the internal combustion status quo.
Two-thirds of this efficiency gain comes from using a smaller engine, and the remaining 10 percent is owed to "a supercharger that’s actually made out of a turbocharger," VanDyne says.
Powered by a car’s waste heat, the aptly named SuperTurbo turns a turbine attached to the crankshaft via its own transmission. The resulting power boost allows the manufacturer to use a four-cylinder instead of a V6, or a V6 instead of a larger V8 without a loss in performance.
VanDyne says his technology does not require retooling and only costs $350 per car if the car company installs it at the factory. He developed the technology with his unnamed former company, a spinoff from MIT and now a part-owner of VanDyne SuperTurbo.
"They didn’t want to keep it in-house, so I licensed the technology and went out on my own," he says. And since going out on his own last year, he has landed orders from six major auto manufacturers — none of them American — to buy $100,000 prototypes of his SuperTurbo.
His current model can hit 80,000 revolutions per minute; the coming six prototypes will be able to hit 220,000. He plans to deliver them this spring. The manufacturers will test them internally and evaluate the technology for their 2012 models, at the earliest, at which point VanDyne hopes to graduate from research and development to manufacturing. "The goal is to take this into production ourselves," he says. "We’ve been asked by our customers — they would support us."
Working exclusively with Asian and European customers, VanDyne says Detroit auto manufacturers are getting "exactly what they deserve, because they’ve been running their companies with accountants in charge" — and the accountants have run them into the ground.
"Toyota, they operate with an engineering mindset," he adds. "That maximizes profit. If there is truly a competitive advantage, they see the value in it. In the U.S., it’s such an accounting mentality, it’s all about buying cheaper parts. They see the part and not the system."
Software Product of the Year: Orchestr8’s AlchemyGrid, Elliot Turner
"We provide infrastructure to content owners and e-commerce websites," says Elliot Turner, founder and CEO of Denver-based Orchestr8. "We provide the ability to extract relevancy from your data."
An example: A reader on a newspaper’s website has a sidebar of links to suggested related articles. Orchestr8’s AlchemyGrid makes such suggestions with an artificial intelligence that digs deeper than mere keywords.
Turner describes Orchestr8’s technology as much more targeted than Google AdWords, which he says takes a "very naïve" keyword-based approach.
"We’ve built a statistical language model. Basically, (the computer) starts to learn the structure of English text," he says. "This enables content owners to present content on the Web in a more relevant fashion." For e-commerce sites, AlchemyGrid "can automatically convert your catalog into highly targeted contextual advertisements."
Turner sees relevancy on the Web as an accelerating trend. "Our view is, as relevancy increases on the Internet, we’re going to move past the naïve keyword-based approach. I believe there’s a tipping point in terms of relevance."
AlchemyGrid is currently undergoing pre-launch beta testing with a number of partners and customers, Turner says, and about 15 person-years have gone into its half-million lines of code to date. The plan calls for an official launch this month utilizing a multitiered software-as-a-service (SaaS) model.
The first tier is a "freemium" version, he adds, and companies seeking more functionality and dedicated access pay $500 to $2,000 a month. Later in Q1 2009, the five-employee Orchestr8 will release a performance-based AlchemyGrid where pricing will be pegged to click-throughs and orders.
CSIA, a statewide tech industry trade association, named Orchestr8 one of the "Twenty Most Innovative Companies in Colorado" at its September 2008 DEMOGala. "Initial feedback has been very positive," Turner says.
Orchestr8 is Turner’s second company. He sold his first startup, security provider Mimestar, in 2000. "In the course of my first startup and working at the acquiring company, a lot of my work involved looking for hackers coming into the network through data analysis," he says. "That experience of dealing with the Web and processing data at a very deep level gave us the experience to develop this product, which is focused on the relevancy and portability of the data on the Web." www.orch8.com
Young Inventor of the Year: Fiberlight International, Philip Hartman
"I do a lot of different things," says Philip Hartman, the 2008 Young Inventor of the Year. Besides playing banjo in the Hartman Family Band with his siblings, he excels in his studies: At 14, Philip is tackling 10th grade coursework. And he’s an inventor and something of a prodigy in fiberoptics.
His invention, the Fiberlight, "is a new and unique way to fuse optical fibers," he says. "It can splice together multiple optical fibers simultaneously and at a much lower cost. It also requires less training than the current methods."
Instead of using traditional electrode-based technology, the Fiberlight employs a heat filament. "Essentially, we’re melting the fibers together," Philip says.
Philip got his start in fiberoptics tagging along with his father Jim, who teaches fiberoptics classes in Estes Park. "I would go up with him and help him teach," he says.
Philip says he was just "goofing around" one day and came up with the Fiberlight. "I told my dad, ‘Here’s a new way to do it,’" he says. "Then I did a lot of testing. I experimented with it."
Aiming for a target market of both field technicians and manufacturers, Philip hopes to start manufacturing Fiberlights and assorted accessories in 2009. But he’s just getting started. "I have some other inventions I’m working on.
"The Inventor Showcase was great," he adds. "We got a lot of opportunities out of it."
Consumer Product of the Year
Smart Lid, toilet seat cover that automatically closes, Bill Miller
Commercial Product of the Year
ET Squared, product designed to mitigate negative impact of humans on the planet, Pete Tovani
Software Product of the Year
Think Like a Genius, three-dimensional imagination software tool for inspiring new ideas, Todd Siler, Ph.D.
Young Inventor of the Year
Spot Sucker stain remover technology, Kyle Myhra
Denver-based writer Eric Peterson is the author of Frommer's Colorado, Frommer's Montana & Wyoming, Frommer's Yellowstone & Grand Teton National Parks and the Ramble series of guidebooks, featuring first-person travelogues covering everything from atomic landmarks in New Mexico to celebrity gone wrong in Hollywood. Peterson has also recently written about backpacking in Yosemite, cross-country skiing in Yellowstone and downhill skiing in Colorado for such publications as Denver's Westword and The New York Daily News. He can be reached at Eptcb126@msn.com