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Posted on Mar 13, 2013

NC State Fast 15

NC State Fast 15

Absorbing Talent and Technology

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Mozzarella makers in Italy and natural gas extractors in the United States are just two industries that need to remove high salt concentrations from water — one to start a process, the other to complete theirs.

Unique technology developed by NC State researchers, and now the focus of the startup Tethis, soon could be used by such varied industries. In recent months, three student entrepreneurs have moved from class project to product development, gained participation of Triangle entrepreneur and NC State alum Chris Evans, and received $800,000 initial funding.

Tethis is a member of the NC State Fast 15 Class of 2013. Brainchildren of faculty, staff and students, some of the compaines and projects are in very early stages. Others have business plans and are moving toward sales or service delivery. Each of the Fast 15 receives customized support from New Venture Services, within the Office of Technology Transfer or OTT.

The Tethis technology grew from studies by professors Richard Venditti and Joel Pawlak in the College of Natural Resources. Pawlak is now the college’s interim associate dean for research. Intrigued by starch-based foams used to make packaging materials, the pair began looking at alternate mixtures using hemicellulose that is extracted in the production of wood materials.

Joel Pawlak, left, and Richard Venditti

Joel Pawlak, left, and Richard Venditti, both of the College of Natural Resources, initiated research that led to Tethis.

Rather than developing a coating to repel moisture, the new mixtures — including chitin from crustacean shells — performed as superabsorbent microsponges. “They were salt-suckers,” Pawlak recalls with a smile.

By 2010, OTT had filed for a U.S. patent, then continued to work with the researchers to identify companies that might be interested in licensing the technology. Their combined conclusion: it was an ideal opportunity for a start-up.

In Fall 2011, OTT placed the technology into the HiTEC Program in the Poole College of Management. The program brings together students in the sciences, engineering and management to evaluate and develop high-tech startup opportunities. Moataz Mousa, a chemical engineering doctoral student, was on a team that started looking at its business potential. In the second semester, then-MBA student Scott Bolin and Ryan Chan, a materials science doctoral student, joined the group.

“Salt was identified as the key problem” by industries, Mousa explains. NC State had a solution. The new product could be a powder mixture that binds with the salt, so that clean water can be pressed out. Or the new materials can be part of filters through which water is pumped.

The project team was serious. “They are sharp students who want to push the technology forward,” explains Pawlak, now a science adviser for Tethis along with Venditti.

As the semester ended, Bolin, Mousa and Chan knew they wanted to build a company. Other project partners chose to focus on other opportunities.

NC State’s technology transfer team continued its key role working with the researchers and the new company. “We have an exclusive license agreement,” notes Bolin, who graduated in May. He is now Tethis CEO. Mousa and Chan lead product development.

powder materials

Research has defined the combination of powder materials that can absorb salt from water-based solutions.

Evans, now Tethis executive chairman, worked with the team through the Blackstone Entrepreneurs Network. Two reasons drew him. “First, Tethis has a rare opportunity to develop technology that has both a great market potential and the ability to do some real good for the environment. Second, I really liked the energy and creativity of the team,” he explains.

A great need and likely first use will be to remove salt from natural gas fracking wastewater, thus allowing brine to be treated on-site. “We will take it to other industries,” Bolin adds, citing its ability to remove heavy metals or radioactive materials from wastewater. The natural products even could be used in diapers and other personal products.

Foam created by Tethis

The Tethis formula can create foam, which is skimmed and dried for appropriate disposal.

Another potential use is for drinking water. About 44 million people now rely on reverse osmosis as a saltwater treatment. Or new products could be used by a new generation of space explorers. Thus, the sky may be the limit.

Class of 2013

With its first class already moving toward business success, the NC State Fast 15 program is now working with its Class of 2013. These startup opportunities represent research and innovation from across campus, including the colleges of engineering, management, agricultural and life sciences, natural resources and textiles; as well as student entrepreneurship.

Russell Thomas, who leads NC State’s New Venture Services, notes that the new class members each have a “quest for success,” yet also are highly supportive of each other’s efforts to organize and launch.

CellSentry focuses on cybersecurity by creating a new trust-verification security platform for mobile devices and other IT platforms. CellSentry is currently exploring collaborative efforts with mobile technology vendors.

Enteric Vaccine Solutions is focused on commercializing a vaccine platform for fighting intestinal bacteria such as Salmonella and E. coli, by developing a Salmonella vaccine for the poultry industry. The Salmonella vaccine for poultry will prevent foodborne diseases and make poultry and eggs safer for human consumption. This technology was a 2011 Chancellor’s Innovation Fund winner.

GetZeek provides a completely mobile coupon book as a fundraising solution for schools and community organizations. The format migrates the popular concept of paper coupon books to a 21st-century mobile platform.

Granular Systems helps industrial companies make smarter energy-use decisions. With a patent-pending distributed submetering solution at the plug level, Granular offers real-time visualizations through a personalized online portal that provides specific suggestions to use electricity more efficiently.

GridBridge is focused on advanced-technology solutions to modernize the electrical grid. With partner electric utilities, GridBridge will introduce and implement revolutionary products to optimize electricity flow on the grid and to minimize costly capital-intensive overhauls. This is the first startup from the National Science Foundation-funded FREEDM Systems Engineering Research Center, headquartered on the NC State Centennial Campus.

Koyr is developing intelligent instrumentation for detecting radioactive isotopes. The android-enabled, Geiger counter technology can be integrated into mobile networks, thus providing ready access and automated data processing and analysis capabilities.

mAssured Technology is developing a new capability to separate smartphone operating systems, thus directly supporting the “Bring Your Own Device” trend of employees using their own mobile devices in the workplace.

NFM Audit Software is commercializing a novel software tool that identifies discrepancies in the financial statements of public companies by correlating financial statements with nonfinancial measures, known as NFMs. The Web-based tool automates the collection of NFMs from SEC filings and enables users to more efficiently and effectively identify inconsistencies.

Novocor Medical SystEMS is continuing development of an innovative rapid chilling device for inducing therapeutic hypothermia in cardiac arrest, heat stroke and heavily concussed patients, thus buying time that can save lives. This startup project was formerly known as Certalgo.

Offline Media is redefining a world where “social” means more than sitting behind a computer. Offline is developing an application for discovering a community by creating, joining, and/or sharing group events. Currently located at Triangle Startup Factory in the American Tobacco Campus of Durham, the company ranked in the state’s Top 30 tech startups selected by the Council for Entrepreneurial Development.

RiboScan is developing a Web-based service for academic researchers and life science companies to better solve protein expression needs. Its novel computational model provides detailed insights into protein translation, resulting in optimized gene sequences for producing desired levels of proteins, such as for biopharmaceuticals and therapeutics.

Solar Dyes is commercializing a new “sensitizer” or dye that harvests more ambient and solar light than any dye currently on the market. It can be used in dye-sensitized solar cell applications, such as Building Integrated Photovoltaic that is used to create more effective solar cells.

Tethis is commercializing a filtration-technology platform that will enable better onsite water treatment solutions for varied industries, including the growing operations of natural gas fracking. (See page 19.)

VaporPulse has a unique technology platform for applying highly uniform and functional coatings on varied products. VaporPulse currently is working on products to improve protection and mobility of military personnel. Other potential uses include textiles, medical devices, packaging, energy and electronics. This technology was a 2011 Chancellor’s Innovation Fund winner.

Zone Five Software is offering SportTracks, a Web-based platform to build online fitness communities that integrate with existing GPS and sensor devices. SportTracks focuses on serious amateur athletes who are data and analytics geeks, along with coaches who connect with athletes online, and device-makers who need software solutions.

Watch for an NC State Fast 15 event in late spring, where participants will pitch products, technologies and/or services to potential investors. Contact with interest in any of these opportunities.

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