WMSTI Warning Handle With Care

March 18, 2005
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The West Michigan Science & Technology Initiative is very particular about which new business ventures get access to the ultra-valuable wet lab space in Grand Rapids.

And that’s exactly how it should be, because WMSTI must remain all about getting products to market, not nurturing the latest and greatest bright idea.

A story on page 3 today outlines some of what is happening at WMSTI, but the impact of the business incubator goes deeper than that.

CEO Dale Danver’s company, Sordal Inc., got its start with material developed by NASA. But West Michigan is where the idea for the lightweight insulation got its commercial birth.

“We’re just starting what’s called the Stage III process with the (U.S.) Navy,” he said. “Once they’re completely satisfied with the material, they’ll enter it into their specifications for all the naval ships. That’s the reason for the start of our spin-off company.”

Last year, Sordal entered into a 20-year licensing agreement with Degussa AG of Germany, a $25-billion-a-year major player in the specialty chemical industry, to produce Solrex, which has commercial applications as insulation in aircraft and ships. Sordal will receive royalties over the life of the contract, Danver said.

He said another Sordal product, called Armarex, is a lightweight, nonflammable paper twice as strong as any manmade fiber on the market today, so it has applications in protective apparel and body armor.

“If we convert that into a composite material that we call honeycomb core, which most aircraft is made out of, we can reduce an airplane’s weight by about 25 percent. The key is that for every pound of mass you remove from the aircraft, you save three pounds of fuel and, hence, three pounds of pollutants.”

He said he hopes to turn his attention in May to starting a manufacturing spin-off company to bring Armarex to the market.

Another example is Elkins Innovations, which is conducting research on a prosthetic hand. The hand’s movement is controlled by a wireless electromechanical controller in the form of a shoe insole that has sensors beneath the ball and toes of the foot, according to CEO Sally Mulder. Placing pressure on the sensors sends a signal to the hand she said, allowing for independent finger and wrist movement.

Grand Rapids inventor Jeff Elkins developed the concept and did the initial work on a prototype with the help of GVSU’s Small Business and Technology Development Center. Continuing research is supported by a $100,000, Phase I grant from the National Institute of Health’s Small Business Innovation. Mulder said Phase I involves research to determine whether people can actually train their toes to work independently of each other.

“That’s our first step in being able to apply this control device. We have to prove that people can operate this control mechanism. The rollout of our company is going to be with the upper extremity prosthetic. We’re working with Mary Free Bed on that.”

The device is patent protected and will have many other applications within the medical field, as well as applications in the security, communications, automotive and gaming industries, Mulder said. She expects it will be about three years before the prosthesis is on the market.

By that time, West Michigan should have plenty more products ready for market.    

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