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The Transformers

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Tuesday, May 01, 2007


The Transformers

Eight homegrown discoveries that will change the world

By Abraham Hyatt
Illustrations by Jon Ferland


Blacktoe MedicalChange1.jpg


WHAT THEY DO: ultrasound devices
HOW THEY’LL CHANGE THE WORLD: A fingertip ultrasound device will save lives by making it easier for medical professionals to “see” inside a person.
WHERE THEY ARE TODAY: They expect $1.6 million in federal funding to be released in the next two months, which will allow them to begin production for the U.S. Army.
WHERE THEY’LL BE IN FIVE YEARS: making probes that can be used by a wide variety of medical professionals

It’s called the healing touch because, well, it involves touching. And the cold, plastic probe used for medical ultrasounds is nothing like a doctor’s restorative hands.

Enter Blacktoe Medical, with an ultrasound device small enough to fit onto the end of a doctor, nurse or medic’s finger.

To somebody outside the medical field, that’s mildly interesting. In the 50 years the medical world has been using ultrasound to provide images of organs, fetuses and blood vessels, the probe that delivers those sound waves into a patient’s body has gradually shrunk to about 6 inches long and the width of someone’s hand.

So who cares that it’s even tinier? Every-one from doctors at a family clinic to medics on the battlefields of Iraq, says company CEO and president Evan Dudik.

“It makes ultrasound intuitive,” he says. “You have something that slips on your index or middle finger. You point it and you see [on the monitor] where you’re pointing.”

Army medics can both feel and see major blood vessels in the neck and chest as they insert a catheter to quickly administer drugs and fluids — a tricky procedure that’s much more awkward with conventional probes. Closer to home, it turns any ultrasound procedure, from heart surgery to pelvic exams, into a hands-on moment for doctors and surgeons.

Does radically shrinking bulky technology so that it’s available to everyone sound familiar? Dudik thinks so: “We’re trying to do what the personal computer did to the computer industry,” he says.

Change3.jpg Aptiv


WHAT THEY DO: insect monitoring and control
HOW THEY’LL CHANGE THE WORLD: By instantly identifying insects, disease and bio-terrorism can be stopped before they happen.
WHERE THEY ARE TODAY: developing a wireless version of the sensor
WHERE THEY’LL BE IN FIVE TO 10 YEARS: increasing bio-security at major ports by monitoring for invasive species in real time; using the sensors to rapidly identify where malaria might break out

They creep into the country in shipping containers and fly, invisible, across state lines. They eat crops, fruit and forests. And in Africa, malaria-infected mosquitoes whine from person to person, killing more than 2 million children and pregnant women each year.

Last January, Philipp Kirsch, Aptiv’s 46-year-old founder and president, was in a village in Kenya. As insects flew through the eaves of a hut, a sensor told him what each bug was.

Considering that the normal way to identify insects is to set traps, leave them for a certain amount of time, and then take the traps to a lab for analysis, Aptiv’s sensors are impressive.

Scatter those sensors around an Oregon orchard and they would identify filbertworm, codling and apple ermine moths the moment the invasive pests arrived. The same goes for ship-borne stowaways in the country’s major ports.

In countries ravaged by malaria, health organizations could monitor insect activity in real time, targeting preventive intervention efforts to specific regions before the disease’s one- to two-week gestation period passes.

Kirsch says the company’s putting final touches on a wireless version of the sensor. Once that’s finished, he estimates, a commercial version will be available by the end of this year.

Perpetua Power Source Technology


Change2.jpgWHAT THEY DO: power generation
HOW THEY’LL CHANGE THE WORLD: Batteries that run on heat and have decades-long life spans will revolutionize how electronic devices are powered.
WHERE THEY ARE TODAY: They’re working with large wireless monitoring systems.
WHERE THEY’LL BE IN FIVE YEARS: making batteries for consumer products, like laptops, and medical devices

The battery that Jon Hofmeister, Perpetua’s 33-year-old president and founder, holds in his hand is a simple-looking thing — maybe an inch tall and as big around as a nickel, copper with a band of black around the middle.

He holds it against his arm, and simple turns to science fiction. That’s enough heat to produce power, he says. “A one- to two-degree temperature change is all you need.”

The basic principle behind it is as simple as the battery looks. Inside is a 8-foot-long roll of gold-colored foil with circuitry printed on one side. When the battery is heated, atomic particles jump between two different materials in the foil, creating an electrical current, not unlike what happens with solar power.

But this needs no sun, and the foil can be molded to fit any shape or space inside a laptop, cell phone, security system, medical device — anything that uses a battery and generates even a small amount of heat. And since there are no chemicals that break down over time, as with normal batteries, Hofmeister estimates they’ll last 15 years or more.

This summer Perpetua begins producing batteries for clients with vast wireless monitoring systems — such as those used on large bridges to monitor corrosion or stress — that are very difficult to get to for routine battery replacement.

Hofmeister would love to jump into the consumer electronics market this summer, too, but Perpetua isn’t quite ready for that. He estimates the company needs another five years of growth before it can handle that type of volume.

Change7.jpg Portland Bioscience


WHAT THEY DO: genomic biosciences
HOW THEY’LL CHANGE THE WORLD: What’s your genetic makeup? Find out quickly and get warning of diabetes or cancer decades in advance.
WHERE THEY ARE TODAY: selling genome scanners and tests
WHERE THEY’LL BE IN 10 YEARS: making an off-the-shelf test for everyday use

It’s called personalized medicine — using new discoveries to peer inside the basic building blocks of a person’s cells.

What’s inside? Clues to which drugs will cause negative reactions. A roadmap to the most effective medication for a specific woe. Advance warning of diseases that could lurk for decades before attacking.

The head of the Food and Drug Administration calls it the future of medicine. It’s one that’s taking an enormous amount of dizzying research — it’s very easy to get lost as Steve Benight, a chemistry and physics professor at Portland State University and co-founder of Portland Bioscience, talks about multiplexing, cross hybridization and virtual assays.

But the end result is simple: standardized genetic tests that are cheap enough for everyday use. “My dream is to have tests at Walgreens so you can monitor your response to things in real time,” he says.

Not everyone has embraced the idea of personalized medicine. The pharmaceutical industry would have to find a business model that doesn’t rely on a blanket, one-size-fits-all approach to developing drugs. Benight is looking forward to the day that industry jumps on board. But in the meantime, based simply on the federal grants, angel investors and contract revenues that Portland Bioscience has attracted, the company is doing all right.

Benight is firmly focused on a future, a decade away, where secrets wrapped inside the body’s cells have been unraveled, and answers are available at the nearest drug store.

“Personalized medicine,” he says, “is coming.”



Change8.jpgWHAT THEY DO: make a miniature version of equipment that can weigh molecules
HOW THEY’LL CHANGE THE WORLD: by finding life on other planets
WHERE THEY ARE TODAY: They’ve already received funding from NASA; a demonstration model will be finished within weeks.
WHERE THEY’LL BE IN FIVE YEARS: The equipment will also be used in the medical, pharmaceutical and security fields.

There are the companies that are changing this world, and then there’s the company that’s changing other worlds — Mars, to be exact. And maybe Europa, one of Jupiter’s moons.

Opti-MS makes what’s called a time-of-flight mass spectrometer — a highly technical term for a highly specialized instrument that company founder David Ermer says, “basically weighs molecules.” That weight is a crucial part of analyzing microscopic particles for many things, including signs of life on other planets.

These kinds of spectrometers are usually fairly large pieces of equipment: 8 feet long and 4 feet wide. The one that Ermer invented, however, is not. It’s as good as big laboratory models, but it’s only 4½ inches long, just the size for a rover trundling over the surface of a distant planet, taking samples of alien soil. Or in the International Space Station. That’s another place that NASA, which has provided nearly $700,000 in development funding over the last two years, is interested in using it.

Other scientists at the Portland State Business Accelerator, where Opti-MS is based, are slightly in awe of the work Ermer is doing in his simple lab just off the building’s basement parking garage. He’s a quiet man with slightly graying hair and goatee and a self-effacing demeanor.

As he stands next to a test version of the instrument, he talks about how surprised he’s been to find that there’s a lot of non-space-related interest in his work as well: Drug companies want to use it to test for impurities. Hospitals could use it to screen for pathogens or for diagnostic work. Law enforcement could use it screen for biological agents.

In other words, given a little time, Opti-MS will be changing this world, too.

Change4.jpg How will computers keep getting faster? With lasers and mirrors, say the men behind Lightfleet.


Camas, Wash.

WHAT THEY DO: computer technology
HOW THEY’LL CHANGE THE WORLD: by using lasers to move vast quantities of data at the speed of light
WHERE THEY ARE TODAY: They’ll ship their first, as-of-yet-undisclosed product later this year.
WHERE THEY’LL BE IN FIVE YEARS: The technology could be used in any industry that handles vast amounts of data: banking, movie making, medicine or science.

In 1965, one of the co-founders of Intel made a prediction: The computing power of microchips was going to double about every two years.

The prediction was called Moore’s Law, after its author, and over the decades it held true because of one reason: Transistors on microchips were getting smaller and smaller. That meant more and more transistors could be put on a chip, and so computers went faster and faster.

But there’s a brick wall ahead. Even with the help of nanotechnology, semiconductor devices will — probably within the next five years — be unable to shrink any further.

How will computers keep getting fas-ter? With lasers and mirrors, say the men behind Lightfleet, a company based on the Washington side of the Columbia River.

It’s as simple as it sounds. Besides physical limitations, regular circuitry has drawbacks. It produces heat, gobbles a lot of energy and can cause data traffic jams. Lasers do none of the above. Plus, they’re as fast as the speed of light.

What’s unique about Lighfleet is that instead of focusing a laser on one point (which is how lasers are normally used), they spread the laser beam out so it transmits data to multiple places at the same time. John Peers, company founder and CEO, compares it to gridlocked traffic in Manhattan that suddenly is able to move through beams of light interlinked through the city.

Lightfleet’s technology is most exciting for the people who have to crunch enormous amounts of data, like Oregon State University’s College of Oceanic and Atmospheric Sciences. Who else? Movie studios that create special effects, financial institutions tracking ID theft and fraud, and law enforcement agencies that are developing face recognition software.

It’s such a new method that Lighfleet has yet to come up with a proper noun. It’s not a server, Peers says, or a switch (which are used in networking computers). Swerver? he asks, laughing.

Given that newness and the potentially huge market, it’s understandable that he sounds just a tiny bit smug when he declines to talk about specifics of the company’s first product, which is slated to ship later this year.

Oregon Medical Laser Center



In Gregory’s work, adult cells are injected directly into the damaged area of a heart where they regrow blood vessels and muscle.

WHAT THEY DO: tissue regeneration
HOW THEY’LL CHANGE THE WORLD: by regenerating tissue in damaged hearts
WHERE THEY ARE TODAY: They’re working with the U.S. military and other researchers on how to regenerate damaged muscles.
WHERE THEY’LL BE IN FIVE YEARS: using the same science to routinely repair nerves and heart and lung tissue

Dr. Ken Gregory and HemCon, the company he co-founded, already have made national headlines for changing the world. Using an ingredient found in shrimp shells, they found a way to rapidly stop wounds from bleeding and now make bandages that every U.S. Army soldier carries.

Gregory, who also started Oregon Medical Laser Center about 15 years ago, has been working on another world-changing project: regrowing damaged heart tissue using adult stem cells.

There are two types of stem cells: embryonic, the subject of ongoing political and ideological debate because they come from embryos, and adult, which are found in places like bone marrow and can repair damaged tissue. In Gregory’s work, adult cells are injected directly into the damaged area of a heart, where they regrow blood vessels and muscle.

It’s a technique that researchers around the world are perfecting for different organs in the body. “The promise of healing a heart after a heart attack, of healing lungs, of healing degenerative diseases like MS — there’s a wide swath of great new promise where there’s not much hope today,” he says.

Pre-clinical trials could start in early 2008. They could also start about that time for another Gregory project: regenerating damaged leg and arm muscles in Iraq war veterans — military-funded research that he can’t talk about.

But it’s work that’s in keeping with his prediction for five years from now when he expects it will be common for adult stem cells to be used in healing. “It’s going to translate into a wonderful medical regimen,” he says, “all the way down to primary medical care.”

Change6.jpgFarmers Conservation Alliance

Hood River

WHAT THEY DO: rural community outreach and building fish screens
HOW THEY’LL CHANGE THE WORLD: helping solve a 100-year-old irrigation problem that pits fish against farmers, and saving untold thousands of endangered fish in the process
WHERE THEY ARE TODAY: They’ve installed six fish screens in Oregon, Washington and Idaho.
WHERE THEY’LL BE IN FIVE TO 10 YEARS: installing 500 more screens throughout the Pacific Northwest, Canada and California
HOW LONG THEY’VE BEEN AROUND: Farmers began developing the screen in 1996; the Farmers Conservation Alliance was formed in 2006 to market it.

Fish, farmers and water have always formed an unhappy trinity.

To irrigate, farmers need river water. But fish get sucked into irrigation systems. So the state mandates that farmers use screens to keep that from happening. But debris from the river gets stuck in the screen. So a lot of time and money is spent cleaning them — $70,000 a year by the Farmer’s Irrigation District in Hood River alone.

Ten years ago, two farmers in that district came up with what would prove to be a brilliant idea: Instead of sucking water through a vertically oriented screen, let water run over a horizontal screen. Fish and debris flow over the screen; water moves down and then into the irrigation system. Jerry Bryan, the district’s manager, says they weren’t the first to come up with the idea, but they were the first to actually make it work, and state fish officials describe its applications as very promising.  

Now that the design phase is complete, the nonprofit agency Farmers Conservation Alliance has been formed to take on the task of marketing the screen, with all profits being reinvested into community programs that benefit fish and farmers.

As of now, six screens have been installed in three states. With as many as 50,000 unscreened irrigation and hydroelectric systems in Oregon alone, the alliance will be very busy in the coming years.

But the implications are vast. The screens could be used up and down the West Coast and into Montana, Idaho and Canada — anywhere that fish, farmers and water intersect.

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