For Jay Groves, inspiration began with tweezers. As a graduate student, Groves was studying cell membranes- the fatty wrappers that enclose living cells- and the proteins that stud them. Though 80 percent of drugs work by binding to these proteins, they are poorly understood and hard to study. While trying to measure the motion of cell membrane proteins, Groves scratched the silica surface supporting them with his tweezers to help focus his microscope. He noticed that the molecules couldn’t move across the scratch- and a new idea was born. Could researchers create patterns on wafers that would, like the scratch, corral proteins? Sure enough, Groves developed and patented the MembraneChip, a silic surface etched with tiny squares that partition cell membrane proteins so they can be studied. In 2000 he launched a five-person biotech company, Proteomic Systems, now called Synamem, in Burlingame, CA, which licensed the MembraneChip to seek new drugs that suppress immune response or fight infection. Groves, who is now an assistant professor of chemistry at the University of California, Berkeley, says the technology could affect the study of autoimmune diseases, among other disorders. “Membranes are the definitive structural feature of life,” Groves says- and he is determined to master their ways.