Oregon's nanotech industry: Can small be large?

Oregon's nanotech industry: Can small be large?

The Scientist

0713 Nano 02In general, tenure-track professors are obsessed with the number of papers they publish. Traditionally, it’s the best path to getting the prized tenure contract.

Not in the Goforth lab, a small space in a nondescript building on the Portland State University campus where Andrea Goforth, an inorganic chemist, and her team of postgraduate students do their work. Hired by PSU as a junior professor at a time when federal grant money hasn’t kept pace with demand, Goforth isn’t as focused on churning out papers as might be expected. Instead she’s been able to follow her two current research passions: biomedical imaging agents at the nanoscale and the novel properties of the chemical element bismuth, the active ingredient in Pepto-Bismol.

Although they seem disparate, Goforth’s two enthusiasms actually feed each other. Goforth, 34, has a patent on her discoveries regarding how tiny bismuth particles, which are radiopaque — visible on X-ray — may also be easier on the human body than barium and suitable for use in medical devices.

What is also novel about Goforth’s discovery is how quickly she’s turned it into a product idea — add-ins to surgical sponges — and parlayed the idea into a company called Hawthorne Materials Corp.

“It’s not typical of chemists in an academic environment to be thinking so much about commercialization,” Goforth admits. “With federal funding as low as it has been, though…academic institutions stubbornly stuck on getting Fed money are starting to realize we need to collaborate locally.”

Goforth has done that — she heaped praise on ONAMI for connecting her to electron microscopes integral to her research. In addition to the enthusiastic engagement of her postgraduate student Anna Brown, the university’s MBA students and technology transfer office helped Goforth zero in on market potential and appropriate products to be created from the radiopaque bismuth particles. Toxicity testing of the “Bismarkers,” as they are currently called, is proceeding.

Goforth says her partners know marketing Bismarkers will never be of higher priority to her than doing basic nanoscience. Yet she’s also clear that pursuing new commercialization possibilities, is, in a sense, a part of her job, much like teaching the next generation of scientists and publishing her research findings. As a transplanted Tennessean, she loves Portland and hopes that Oregon can develop its research in nanotech into some kind of cluster or hub.

“Relative to Seattle’s prominence, nanobiotech might be a bit more difficult to cultivate,” she says. “With Intel here, nano in device integration is more likely. Maybe we could be the happy middle ground and develop a bit of a hub for both.”

Goforth’s partner, Brown, always thought she would be academically bound. Now nanotechnology and the bismuth research are changing her trajectory.

“The world doesn’t need more professors,” she says. “I’m hoping instead I can translate that high-risk, high-reward startup mentality of the software industry to nanomaterials. That feels like a career calling.”

What’s good for her could also be good for Oregon. “Maybe there’s no way we’ll compete with Silicon Valley,” says Brown. “But anchoring a nanomaterials industry into the Pacific Northwest? From my little bit of experience with the Oregon Angel Fund, that seems to be what investors are getting excited about.”