U. of I. shows off faculty’s tech work to venture firms – More universities try to lure capital
Technology show-and-tell sessions have joined teaching and
research as staples of academic life.
By Jon Van
Chicago Tribune staff reporter
As universities have gotten into the business of starting new companies, more campuses are
initiating programs to attract venture capital. Last week the University of Illinois held its second
program to highlight work by faculty members in search of commercialization.
"We hope to bring many parts of the high-tech community together to better connect," said David
Chicoine, the university’s vice president for economic development.
New technologies, including research still in the lab and products ready to market by scientists
who have found funding for start-up companies, were presented Wednesday to a few hundred
Krishna Shenai might be the farthest along the development path.
The U. of I. researcher’s company, Shakti Systems, developed a power management chip
intended to replace the many power devices now populating cell phones, hand-held computers
and other portable electronic gadgets.
By replacing four or five less sophisticated power devices with a single chip that emits the
precise amount of electricity when needed, Shenai contends, his product can save
manufacturers money–and double battery life.
Future generations of the power manager chip may boost battery life five times over today’s
technology, he said.
Another presenter, Brenda Russell, developed with her research colleagues an item they have
found to be extremely useful for researchers. Now they are looking for an entrepreneur to turn it
into a product.
Their innovation is an alternative to the petri dish for growing cell samples. Called a cell habitat, it
is essentially a computer chip doped with chemicals to provide a three-dimensional environment
that mimics a living organism.
Cells that are chemically stimulated and can orient themselves in several directions behave more
naturally than cells lying flat on a dish, Russell said.
"A cell in a habitat is a happy cell," Russell said.
The University of Illinois has patents pending on the habitats, but it has not moved toward
commercialization, other than finding there is market demand.
"We get calls from colleagues all over wondering where they can buy habitats they can use in
their research," said Russell. "We’re making them here by hand for our own use. We can’t make
enough to sell."
Other University of Illinois researchers described technology that can help existing drugs kill
microbes that have developed a resistance to drugs. Another discovery is a drug treatment to
combat the sleep-associated breathing problem called apnea.
Promoting commercialization of university-based research is more than just another way for a
campus to supplement income; it has become an aspect of academic life that top teachers and
graduate students demand.
Patrick Rea, executive director of the Illinois Development Finance Authority, which funds efforts
to commercialize academic research, said making a return on investments is only one goal of his
"Our primary goal is to create an atmosphere in Illinois that will attract and retain top faculty and
grad students to our state’s universities," Rea said.
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