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Entering new waters via tiny chip

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Updated: December 19, 2012 12:19PM

Swimmers will know in real-time this summer whether their neighborhood lake is safe from high bacteria, thanks to a test developed by a Chicago biotech startup.

The startup, FCubed, LLC, invented the detection technology, which works with technology created at the University of Notre Dame to find DNA in a water sample. If DNA is there, the water isn’t safe because it contains sewage.

The biochip and detection device got the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s OK just in time to meet the EPA’s mandate to provide the lake testing within 24 hours this coming summer, rather than the now-acceptable 48 hours.

FCubed’s biochips are smaller than a thumbnail and are unique because they can detect a variety of pathogens without using expensive and complicated optical devices. A lifeguard can be trained to put saline solution in the device, which displays the results on a tablet computer screen on the top shell of the device case.

FCubed owns the exclusive license for its biochip technology. It paid Notre Dame millions — the exact amount wasn’t made public — to obtain exclusive rights to the device with which its biochips work.

The idea is to lease the device and sell the biochip technology for $50 a test, much like a company would license a photocopier machine and sell the photocopier paper to go with it, said FCubed founder, president and CEO Les Ivie.

The successful EPA test boosted FCubed’s visibility, enabling the company to attract 21 individual investors, including two from the Chicago area, Ivie said.

FCubed’s latest project is detecting MRSA, a staph bacteria that cannot be treated with first-line antibiotics. MRSA creates havoc at hospitals because it spreads easily among sick people and results in people being quarantined and taking longer than expected to recover.

FCubed has started clinical trials of the system at Memorial Hospital of South Bend and is negotiating to do so at Northwestern Memorial Hospital in Chicago. The biochip detects MRSA in real time from nasal swab tests and from puss that oozes out of a wound or an incision.

“Few tests can measure the presence of MRSA in a boil, wound or absess,” said Ivie, a Hawthorn Woods resident.

Other technology startups are working to develop easier-to-use patient consent forms so people can let their data be shared instantly and confidentially, opening access and cutting the time researchers need to develop targeted treatments.

FCubed has also partnered with Northwestern University researcher Gordana Ostojis, a nanotech expert, to find an easier way to manufacture the device and develop it to spit out immediate results of tests for viruses and strep throat in a doctor’s office.

The new manufacturing process would use carbon nanotubes to allow the biochip to be popped in and out of the device like a VCR goes into and out of a TV set.

The partnership between FCubed and Notre Dame, started four years ago, is part of a bigger effort to accelerate the university’s commercialization of ideas.

Notre Dame got $559,262 in revenue from inventions in 2011, compared with the University of Chicago’s $8.7 million and Northwestern University’s $191.5 million, according to a report from the Association

of University Technology Managers, an international association for technology managers and business executives who manage intellectual property, based in Deerfield.

Colleges and universities suffered a blow to their financing for early, high-risk research at least six year ago, when venture capitalists largely withdrew from the category, said Rosibel Ochoa, executive director of the William J. von Liebig Center for Entrepreneurialism and Technology Advancement at the University of California, San Diego.

Four years ago, the Obama administration cited university-level innovation as vital to the country’s competitive standing, so federal grants have become a major funding source for the research, said Ochoa, who previously worked at Motorola’s Energy Systems Group.

FCubed is Ivie’s third startup, after he ran a successful electronic marketplace for trading commodities while he lived in Switzerland as research-and-development leader for Zellweger Luwa Group, and as chief technology officer for Honeywell’s gas detection unit after Honeywell acquired the company.

Zellweger Luwa provided startup funding for Textilio, a commodities-trading electronic marketplace where Ivie presided as chairman. Ivie also was chief operating officer and co-owner of Gas Clip Technologies, a startup that makes disposable safety devices for the petrochemical and oil and gas industries. Ivie sold his interests in Gas Clip in late 2011.

His partnership with Notre Dame dovetails with the university’s efforts to create a crescent of high-powered universities such as Purdue, Indiana University and the University of Illinois, to encourage economic development in Indiana, Illinois and Michigan.

FCubed recently moved out of Notre Dame’s three-year-old Innovation Park, a 55,000-square-foot building where companies work to commercialize their innovations, to a repurposed high school building nearby to continue growing.

David Brenner, president and CEO of Innovation Park, said though the University of Notre Dame has conducted world-class research for decades, the park is designed to jumpstart new tech ideas into marketable products.

“We have a clear place for innovators to explore their ideas and not wait five to 10 years down the road” to turn them into reality, he said. “It’s how the university is taking a more active role in getting technologies into the marketplace.”

FCubed is the first Innovation Park tenant to turn a raw idea from university research into a marketable device.

Brenner envisions a future generation of innovations coming from nanoelectronics, the logic devices that decipher and transmit smartphones and mobile device commands.

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