Technology Alliance Showcases Five Companies in Sensors, Mobile Displays, and Drug Therapies: Investors Take Notice

Xconomy Seattle — 

Yesterday afternoon, I attended the Seattle-based Technology Alliance’s “Innovation Showcase” at the Rainier Square Conference Center downtown. This is a relatively new event—the fourth one so far, and the first open to the press—in which tech and life sciences companies from Washington state pitch their businesses to a small, select crowd of angel investors, entrepreneurs, business leaders, and service providers.

The event had a strong University of Washington flavor, as several of the speakers and sponsors had UW ties. Linden Rhoads, vice provost and head of the UW Center for Commercialization, and her deputies, Rick LeFaivre and Tom Clement, each said a few words about the presenters.

Similar to the NWEN First Look Forum last week, the five presenting companies cut across some very different disciplines, including hardware, wireless sensors, and biotech. Guess how many software or Internet companies presented? None.

Well, none of the traditional Web 2.0, social networking, or business software, at least. Susannah Malarkey, executive director of the Technology Alliance, told me this was a conscious decision. Her team chose non-software companies for this event, in part because software startups tend to need less capital and can get off the ground more easily these days than other tech and life sciences firms. One of the goals of the Innovation Showcase was to highlight different kinds of companies compared to other events around town—though each was built on a strong technical idea.

Here’s a quick rundown on the companies, and what stood out to me. No audience voting, no winners, just the facts. I’ll say a little more about some companies than others, but this is by no means comprehensive:

1. Enravel (Seattle)

Linden Rhoads introduced this startup by pulling out her iPhone and iPad (yes, one of those) and talking about the devices’ display capabilities. “These are great, these are fun, but they’re going to be so much more fun when there are projectors available for them,” she said. “That day is very, very close at hand.”

Enravel is led by UW mechanical engineer Brian Schowengerdt, an expert in alternative displays, user interfaces, and human visual perception. He co-founded the company in 2009 to commercialize a laser-based “pico projector.” The idea, he says, is to “take a display of iPad size and compress it into the size of an iPhone.” More specifically, to shrink a projector to “the size of a grain of rice” and use it to project on-screen images, video, games, websites, e-mail—you name it—onto any larger surface.

The core technology is a “scanning fiber” projector that uses fiber optics and a vibrating element to scan an image and blow it up, for example, to a size of 17 inches across from just five inches away. A matchbook-size assembly of laser diodes (off the shelf) provides the light source to project the image. You could imagine such a projector might be crammed into a smartphone and used anytime you want a bigger display to interact with, for reading text or watching a video, say.

Enravel has five employees, and its technology was built over the past few years using $8 million in funding for a related endoscopic imaging project (led by Eric Seibel) and $100,000 in grants. The company expects to finish its portable prototype by next month, and to have a standalone product by the end of next year.

2. Calcionics (Seattle)

This company was spun out of the UW Bioengineering department in 2007 with a new method of preventing and treating cardiovascular disease—specifically, hardening of the arteries. It’s based on osteopontin, a natural protein which breaks down the calcified tissue that makes arteries harden; this protein is apparently the only a biomarker of heart disease that but is not yet treated, or in this case augmented, with a drug. My colleague Luke wrote about Calcionics when it presented at a Zino Society investment forum a little over a year ago.

CEO Chip Jacob has been working with UW professor Cecilia Giachelli, who did pioneering research on osteopontin. As a progress update, Jacob cited some new clinical data from Pfizer, some new grant funding, and new team members, as well as an ongoing study in mice. The plan is still to raise $35 million over the next five years, and then get acquired by a big drug company to commercialize the product.

3. RoadWyze (Walla Walla, WA)

CEO Dale Keep regaled the audience with stories from his 36 years of working with government agencies dealing with snow, ice, and other weather conditions on roads and highways. His company, founded in 2004, places wireless sensors in roads to communicate things like air temperature, surface temperature, humidity, and pavement conditions (ice or no ice) to computers in road-management vehicles. “The solution is data,” he said.

The idea is that all this data—the sensors could be placed every mile or so—will let authorities spend less money on salt and road chemicals by pinpointing where they’re really needed. It will also make roads safer for drivers. A case study in Maine suggests the technology could reduce the $32 million spent on salt in the winter of 2008-09 by about one-third.

RoadWyze currently has four employees and a number of patents pending. Its latest prototype sensor systems will be complete in July, Keep said.

4. Immusoft (Seattle)

This company’s core technology hails from Nobel Laureate David Baltimore’s lab at Caltech. It involves programming the human immune system to protect patients from viruses and diseases in a targeted, efficient, and cost-effective way.

CEO Matthew Scholz, a serial biotech entrepreneur, has been working on the problem for two years. The basic idea is to get the human body to produce certain kinds of therapeutic antibodies on its own instead of having to get a shot every few weeks. “We think this is the biggest thing to hit medicine since vaccines,” he says. (In February, Scholz wrote a guest piece for Xconomy on the need for an “incubator culture” in Seattle biotech.)

Scholz and his team took the Caltech system and added some crucial elements (a shell from a virus and a “suicide gene” for safety) so that a patient just needs to get blood drawn, and then the process should only take a week or so, he says.

Immusoft is about a year old and has four employees and two patents filed. Scholz mentioned a number of recent partnerships, including tests in monkeys being done in collaboration with Seattle BioMed, and a study with the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center to optimize the therapy for clinics. He says the initial focus will be HIV. The company is currently raising a small funding round.

5. Seattle Sensor Systems (Seattle)

This company has been around since 2002, but is getting a fresh start under the leadership of new CEO Carole Spangler, a UW TechTransfer alum and former employee at Seattle-based Dendreon. (Spangler actually gave a talk at a Zino Society investment forum earlier this week and won the prize for “best investment opportunity.”)

Seattle Sensor Systems makes a portable sensor unit that can test for biohazards like anthrax, red tide, ricin, and viruses such as H1N1, and give results in the field in 10 minutes or less. (The current state of the art in U.S. bio-terror response is still fairly slow and involves shipping samples off for different tests to be done by large machines sitting in laboratories, Spangler says.) Her company’s system comes pre-loaded with chips set to do specific tests for nerve agents, bacteria, viruses, chemicals, and so forth. The technology, based on a technique called “surface plasmon resonance,” was developed at the UW over the past decade with some $8 million in grant money. (Two patents have been issued and two are pending.)

It isn’t cheap—the sensor box costs about $30,000. But it works, according to four separate field tests done by the U.S. Department of Defense, Spangler says. The next phase will be to make the device smaller and cheaper, and sell it to first responders, possibly with wireless and GPS networking that will let people on the front lines upload their findings to a centralized database. The company is currently raising a Series A funding round.

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