A virus that kills HIV, a 3-D display for airport scanners, God’s own guitar distortion pedal, and a public-health analogy to the Internet. It can only mean one thing: former TR100 honorees are still at it, solving problems with creativity, innovation, and fortitude.
University of Oxford biochemist Ben Davis (2003) discovered a new class of compounds he’s calling glycodendriproteins that act as front-line fighters against infectious disease. The compounds bind to bacteria and prevent them from gaining the foothold in human tissue they need to reproduce. Unlike antibiotics, Davis’s compounds reduce the risk of superbugs that evolve drug resistance, as some forms of tuberculosis and staph infection already have. New technologies are making it possible to find better ways to fight disease, says Davis. “My grandma is 94. She lived through the era when antibiotics were discovered and then dominated. It’s time to find something new.”
David Schaffer (2002) and Adam Arkin (1999), colleagues at the University of California, Berkeley, gained attention for their unique proposal for fighting AIDS. Using computer models developed by Arkin, Schaffer and grad student Leor Weinberger engineered a living virus that can attach itself to HIV and kill it. Trading a deadly virus (HIV) for a seemingly benign one (Schaffer’s) could have unforeseen consequences. However, says Schaffer, “Society might one day think…creating parasites to fight parasites is worth the risk.” There’s plenty of time to weigh possibilities, though, as clinical trials are still years away.
Until researchers can shut down diseases entirely, Paul Meyer (2003 Humanitarian Award) and his Washington, DC-based company Voxiva are working to ensure that outbreaks don’t become epidemics. The company develops phone- and Web-based disease surveillance systems, and since the start of 2004, it has launched projects in Washington, DC, Rwanda, India, and Nigeria. Voxiva works with government officials and local health monitors who use touch-tone phones or the Internet to report the number of sick in their areas and the severity of their illnesses. The technology has proven effective in economically or geographically isolated regions and can be targeted toward specific diseases, including HIV/AIDS and Japanese encephalitis. In the United States, public schools use Voxiva’s system to report absenteeism, a possible early indicator of an outbreak.
In June, Athersys, a Cleveland company founded by John Harrington (2002), inked a partnership with the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation to find new ways to treat diabetes. The partners seek to understand how Athersys’s novel adult-derived-stem-cell therapy might induce a person’s pancreas to form the insulin-producing cells central to treating type 1 diabetes. Other alliances with the Cleveland Clinic and the National Institutes of Health will focus on heart and cardiovascular disease, respectively. Harrington also says that the company expects to submit drugs to treat asthma and obesity to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration in 2005 and begin clinical trials soon thereafter.
University of Chicago chemist Milan Mrksich (2002) developed a fast and highly accurate test for screening molecular compounds, which could aid bioterror defense and speed drug development. The test’s precision comes from using mass spectrometry, well known for accurately identifying chemical composition. Its speed comes from an innovative sample preparation technique that enables Mrksich to screen 10,000 molecules in only three days; with automation, that rate could reach 50,000 molecules a day. In initial tests, Mrksich found a compound that inhibited a lethal protein on the surface of the anthrax bacterium. He is now working to better understand its structure and activity in order to develop an anthrax inhibitor.
Gregg Favalora (1999), founder, acting CEO, and chief technology officer of Burlington, MA-based Actuality Systems, will not be distracted. His company recently demonstrated its walk-around 3-D displays to airport scanner manufacturers, who are eyeing better technologies to prevent terrorism. By simply walking around Actuality’s 51-centimeter-diameter, glass-covered orb, inspectors can view scanned objects from all angles. Homeland security is one of a handful of markets Favalora is targeting; others include medical imaging and oil exploration. But the 30-year-old CEO doesn’t want to get ahead of himself. “We’re turning away customers at this point,” he says. “We want to build a very large company, and we have to focus.” Investors and customers like the focus. Actuality has installed 18 of its displays for clients since 2001.
American Superconductor of Westborough, MA, received a grant to develop superconducting wire for the U.S. Department of Defense. Based on technology invented by Amit Goyal (1999) of Tennessee’s Oak Ridge National Lab, the wire transmits electrical current without resistance when cooled to the temperature of liquid nitrogen (-196 °C). Though difficult to engineer, cables made of the wire could carry three to five times as much current as copper transmission cables the same size. And while copper wire cables typically lose 7 to 10 percent of the electrical power they carry during transmission, superconductor cables lose insignificant amounts. The technology is perfect for high-energy motors in large vehicles such as ships and submarines, and for niche medical and high-energy-physics applications. But the wires will be most useful, according to Goyal, in metropolitan areas, where they will replace kilometers of underground transmission wires made of copper, bringing more efficiency and power to the electrical grid. American Superconductor is scaling up a pilot manufacturing plant and expects to have commercial quantities of the wire available in 2007.
Who better to develop software that can filter out songs being illegally transferred over file-swapping networks than Napster founder Shawn Fanning (2002)? Early this year, the 22-year-old announced he was launching San Francisco-based SnoCap to commercialize technology that creates audio fingerprints of digital songs, saves them in a database, and then looks for the fingerprints when songs are transferred to determine whether they’re being used legally. Recording companies support Fanning’s work, as it helps them in court battles against peer-to-peer Napster descendants like Kazaa and eDonkey.
Justin Frankel (2002) left America Online early in 2004 and started Cockos in San Francisco, where he’s developing the JesuSonic, a computerized guitar distortion pedal. Right now, it’s not much to look at: a circuit board inside a cardboard box, with cables running to a computer keyboard, a tiny display, and a guitar pedal. The fact that it works is somewhat miraculous, says Frankel, and the psychedelic sound it creates is so otherworldly that he calls it “God’s own effects processor.” Because the device will be fully programmable, Frankel hopes it will inspire communities of hacker musicians. The inventor of Winamp, a hugely popular free MP3 player, Frankel has made a career of marrying his interests in music and software. “There are a lot of similarities, making music and writing code,” he says. “For one, they’re both nice to share.” He hasn’t yet formulated his business plan and doesn’t know how much of his technology he’ll actually give away. But his musical experiments can be heard, for free, at www.JesuSonic.com.
Lou Montulli (2002) hopes to create a different type of music startup. He has assembled a team to make a portable music player that integrates software with Net-based services. Early prototypes allow users to organize large MP3 collections into playlists that can be discussed, compared, and traded through a communitywide Web service. If the plan comes together, Montulli would like to raise money this fall. He’s also finding time to consult on Chandler, the well-known open-source personal-information manager (see “Trash Your Desktop,” TR November 2003), and to work with the Open Voting Consortium, an open-source e-voting project. He and a group of University of Nevada students have built a prototype system that works like an ATM. After a person votes, the machine prints a paper receipt listing his or her selections. But just before the machine spits it out, an optical scanner creates an image of the receipt and saves it to memory. These digital snapshots allow election officials to double-check electronic tallies without gathering paper. With such redundant counting mechanisms, says Montulli, “every voter becomes a quality assurance tester.”
New Lab Space
Two TR100 recipients have recently taken charge of Intel-sponsored lablets, small research labs located near major universities. In June 2004, Todd Mowry (1999) became director of Intel Research Pittsburgh, a lab consisting of 15 Intel and Carnegie Mellon University computer scientists. Mowry hopes to advance existing work on user interfaces for “computing nomads” – people who work on the same projects from different workstations in changing locations. The vision is that you would power down the computer at your office in, say, New York City, then start up your computer at home in New Jersey, picking up right where you left off. Meanwhile, Joe Hellerstein (1999) was named director of Intel Research Berkeley in California. His job is to muster forces to solve problems inherent to large-scale computer networks, such as security holes. The lab developed a distributed computing system that serves as the platform for Hellerstein’s own project, dubbed PHI, for Public Health of the Internet. Indeed, the effort resembles a public-health initiative: researchers analyze clumps of users to understand not only how computer viruses spread but how people’s behavior increases risk. Hellerstein seeks to gather this information by simultaneously querying millions of computers over the Internet. He hopes to create a visualization tool that would synthesize the resulting data, enabling researchers to see how viruses spread around the globe.
In February 2004, Silex Microsystems, where Helene Andersson (2003) is business manager for life sciences, opened a new 1,000-square-meter facility near Stockholm, Sweden. The plant manufactures custom microelectromechanical parts for drug delivery devices, including micropumps designed by Debiotech, a Lausanne, Switzerland, startup, and microneedles for Haifa, Israel’s NanoPass Technologies. The factory can also manufacture lab-on-a-chip devices, but according to Andersson, “Europe’s big pharma companies haven’t begun using the chips yet.” To take up any slack in its assembly lines, Silex currently produces air-bag pressure sensors and specialty chips. Meanwhile, Stockholm’s Royal Institute of Technology took up the little slack in Andersson’s already busy professional life, naming her an associate professor earlier this year.