July 24, 2013
A Texas Tech University student set to earn a doctorate in chemical engineering in August, recently was awarded a $225,000 National Science Foundation Small Business Technology Transfer (NSF STTR) grant to help commercialize his doctoral work that could take years off biomedical and pharmaceutical trials, and thereby save lives.
Jeevan Maddala came to Texas Tech in the fall of 2009 hoping to develop new technology and commercializing it through a startup company. He developed an interest in microfluidic devices – tiny plumbing systems with “pipes” the size of human hairs that are frequently used to transport fluids at very high speeds. This allows scientists to speed up the drug discovery by processing large amounts of chemicals.
Currently, microfluidic devices are manufactured in prolonged trial-and-error processes with many physical mockups. Maddala’s idea is to create a computer program to create those mockups virtually, which would allow him to fine tune and speed up the process. The software also would enable Maddala to develop very complex and large devices, and then manufacture them with a three-dimensional printer.
Collaborating with chemical engineering professors Raghunathan Rengasamy and Siva Vanapalli, Maddala developed a set of algorithms that would allow him to build the software, and virtually create hundreds of microfluidic-device designs that meet the specifications of the user. Each of the designs are analyzed and modified by the algorithms, resulting in thousands of design possibilities in a relatively short amount of time.
Maddala knew it was time to seek funding when a software prototype showed great promise.
Passive Control: Designing microfluidic ladder networks to synchronize droplet pairs.
“Texas Tech provided me with the right environment to pursue my dreams,” Maddala said. “My background in engineering helped me prepare the technical part of the proposal for the National Science Foundation; the challenge was in writing the business plan.”
He approached the Texas Tech Office of Technology Commercialization (OTC) and the Texas Tech University Small Business Development Center for help. Through the OTC, Maddala and Rengasamy filed a patent for his technology.
“We need more graduate students, like Jeevan, to have an entrepreneurial mindset and to focus their research on solving real world problems,” said Ryan Reber, a technology licensing specialist in the OTC. “The end goal is to actually transfer this innovation to the market. We are still a long way from doing that, but by filing for a patent and beginning to develop a business plan with Jeevan’s team and the Small Business Development Center, our office has taken steps to expedite the commercialization process.”
Meanwhile, the NSF grant allows Maddala to focus on the development and demonstration of the software system. If successful, he will move forward with further enhancements and the development of prototypes. He hopes to eventually build a fully automated system that will design and physically construct highly complex droplet-based microfluidic platforms, starting from just a design concept of a user.
Impact of the proposed technology in the existing solution approach for designing microfluidic platforms. (click to enlarge)
These new complex devices could eventually lead to the discovery of materials for pharmaceutical and biomedical applications including protein crystallization, stem cell growth, and drug screening. Additionally, these devices could be designed for biological applications such as the separation of cancer cells from healthy cells.
Further information on the project titled “Development of a Computational Tool for Modeling, Simulation and Design of Next Generation Discrete Droplet Microfluidic Systems” is available here.
The Edward E. Whitacre Jr. College of Engineering has educated engineers to meet the technological needs of Texas, the nation and the world since 1925.
Approximately 4,300 undergraduate and 725 graduate students pursue bachelors, masters and doctoral degrees offered through eight academic departments: civil and environmental, chemical, computer science, electrical and computer, engineering technology, industrial, mechanical and petroleum.[tttboilerplates id=48]