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Tiny devices drive lab to expand to Tampa Bay area

Reaching capacity, Draper Labs of Cambridge, Mass., plans to take advantage of incentives in Florida to open satellite labs.

Associated Press

Reaching capacity, Draper Labs of Cambridge, Mass., plans to take advantage of incentives in Florida to open satellite labs.

CAMBRIDGE, Mass. — It's easy to imagine James Bond, R2-D2 or Louis Pasteur roaming the hallways of Draper Labs.

One lab cranks out spy computers the size of fingernails.

A robotics room houses a mechanical tuna that tested whether fish tails outperform submarine propellers.

Behind another door, scientists create human livers.

On the continuum of research, Draper folks are hands-on engineers rather than theoretical scientists. They invent stuff — high-tech prototypes that perform specific tasks. And they are coming to Florida to invent some more.

Last week, Gov. Charlie Crist announced that government agencies would kick in $30-million in cash, land and buildings if Draper would open satellite labs in Tampa and St. Petersburg.

The immediate payoff — 165 high-wage jobs — can hardly justify such largesse.

But public officials and academics at the University of South Florida hope the engineering lab will do for the Tampa Bay area what it did for metropolitan Boston: rake in government grants, spin off production firms and generate jobs.

So who is Draper? And why here?

Massachusetts Institute of Technology professor Charles Stark Draper was a gyroscope genius.

He installed them in gun-sights during World War II so Navy ships could shoot down elusive Japanese fighters. He merged them with "accelerometers'' to measure both speed and orientation, which led to autopilots in airplanes, navigation for Apollo moon landings and guidance for submarine missiles.

When student protests pushed defense contracting off college campuses during the Vietnam War, Draper set up shop as a private nonprofit. More than 90 percent of its $400-million annual revenues still come from defense, space and intelligence contracting.

But that's changing.

Navigation and guidance devices grew smaller and smaller until they fit on silicone chips, qualifying them as "microelectromechanical systems," or MEMS — machines as narrow as a human hair that can sense physical data and perform tasks.

That led to lightweight, complex weapons for soldiers, small, unmanned surveillance aircraft and robotic submarines.

"Then we started saying, "Where else can we apply these MEMS?'' said Len Polizzotto, who heads up Draper's business development.

Growing liver tissue

Medicine is a fertile target.

Draper has already developed a tiny, behind-the-eye implant that delivers medicine to treat macular degeneration, and a breath sensor that detects tuberculosis bacteria just as the disease begins to develop.

Draper is also growing 3-D liver tissue.

"One of the biggest issues in drug development is liver toxicity,'' Polizzotto said. Experimental drugs require extensive clinical trials on animals and humans to measure side effects, particularly on the liver.

Scientists can test some drug effects on liver cells grown in petri dishes, but that tissue comes out as a flat mass that lacks blood circulation. That limits testing potential.

Draper and Massachusetts General Hospital are simulating live livers by growing cells around a honeycombed superstructure that includes channels for blood as well as tissue.

"We can skip the animal tests and go right to your liver,'' Polizzotto said. "We can take a tiny piece of your liver, grow that in a dish and make a drug that's perfect for you. This can absolutely lead the way for personalized medicine.''

These projects were stretching Draper's lab capacity in Cambridge last year when Tampa Bay area officials contacted Polizzotto.

He had just moved from SRI, a California research firm that had recently taken economic incentives to open a lab in St. Petersburg and work with USF.

Would Draper like a similar deal?

Expanding near USF

USF and its medical school were a major draw, Polizzotto said. "They are an up-and-coming university. There is great research, an engineering department that is growing. All those hospitals doing all those clinical trials.''

Dale Larson, Draper's director of biomedical engineering, didn't know much about USF when Polizzotto told him of the Tampa-St. Petersburg overture. So he consulted a database that lists USF's medical research grants. Dozens and dozens scrolled down his computer screen, Larson said.

"I thought, 'Cool!' "

Draper's business model is to build the tiny sensors and machines that academics need to convert research ideas into commercial production.

Draper then licenses the technology to spinoff companies.

That meshed with USF's ''center of excellence,'' an interdisciplinary research program that develops commercial products.

"If we can get Draper engineers in the same buildings and work side by side with their engineers,'' said center director Daniel Lim, "we can develop new ideas and get them into the marketplace more quickly.''

Testing food faster

For example, the center is focusing on early detection of E. coli and salmonella on food products.

Draper's sensors could be used in handheld devices to test food at the manufacturing plant.

"The tomato outbreak took several weeks to identify what caused it and where it came from,'' Lim said. "If they had more rapid ways to detect bacteria within a few hours, we wouldn't have to worry about tainted tomatoes or spinach going out to the public.''

Draper's minisensors function in harsh environments like space and deserts.

It plans to install some in Progress Energy Florida's coal-fired power plants to monitor fuel and air mix, hoping to boost efficiency by 10 percent.

"Folks here are very excited by it,'' said Progress Energy spokeswoman Cherie Jacobs. Draper will also use Progress Energy land to test alternative energy technologies, she said. "It could be plug-in vehicles or smart grids, whatever they need.''

Another Draper expertise is "multichip modules,'' minute computers known as MCMs that cost $2,000 to $15,000 apiece.

One fingernail-sized model holds memory, a central processor, a digital signal processor and can communicate "with the real world," said Richard Russell, Draper's MCM director.

The U.S. intelligence community wants so many, "we have exceeded our capacity to make them,'' Russell said. "As we were talking to the Florida folks, we said, 'Let's do that there, too.' "

So Draper is now looking to build or lease 7,000 square feet of lab space in St. Petersburg to build tiny spy computers.

No photographs, please.

Tiny devices drive lab to expand to Tampa Bay area 08/03/08 [Last modified: Friday, August 8, 2008 8:08pm]
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