Universities have long played an integral role in medical device development. They’ve pioneered technologies, licensed discoveries to major industry players, and even spawned spin-out companies of their own. Some colleges are now strengthening their ties to the industry by offering open access to their high-tech facilities—a service that enables higher learning to lower costs for small businesses.
For cash-strapped start-ups, moving from concept to early-stage R&D and prototyping can be a financial burden. Costs associated with the upkeep of a foundry or cleanroom can be astronomical, especially for firms with limited funding. But university-based user facilities offer companies access to state-of-the-art equipment and resources for a reasonable fee. Companies can either rent space in the lab, receive training, and then complete their projects independently, or contract work to the in-house staff.
Dragan Grubisic, general manager for Laser Components (Tempe, AZ), cited the NanoFab at Arizona State University (ASU) as the foundation of a smart business model. “We use this facility for process and device development,” he says. “Being a start-up with limited resources, if we had to put money into building a facility like that, I wouldn’t be here.”
Originally designed to support the semiconductor industry, these fabs offer broad capabilities—catering primarily to micro- and nanoscale characterization and fabrication—that easily translate to medical device development. Many foundries have already hosted users from the medical device sector, facilitating research in such areas as biosensors and MEMS devices for implants. Even industry powerhouses have reaped the benefits. Big companies cannot always justify the expense of equipment for tasks like characterization and failure analysis, and the labs provide an alternative. In fact, Boston Scientific has taken advantage of the resources at the University of Washington’s NanoTech User Facility, according to Qiuming Yu, lab manager.
High-volume production is obviously not the goal of these foundries. Rather, the equipment and technology are suited for early-stage experimenting and prototyping. “Having access to a large facility lets researchers try new technologies or equipment,” says Sandrine Martin, technical manager at the University of Michigan’s fab. Steffan Myhajlenko, associate director of ASU’s fab, concurs. “It’s an ideal environment for prototyping,” he says. “If you have an idea and want to test things out, this is the environment to do it in.”
Firms also profit from the extensive knowledge and assistance at hand. Beyond basic training and troubleshooting, the staff often lends expertise in terms of data analysis and advice, according to Yu. Plus, users at sites supported by the National Nanotechnology Infrastructure Network (NNIN) have access to other centers in the 13-school network of user-based facilities that may have complementary capabilities, Martin says. The Universities of Washington and Michigan are members of NNIN, while ASU operates independently.
While economical, these facilities are not cheap to use. And, since these centers are teaching facilities, users run the risk of students making a mistake during contracted work or with the equipment. But, while not perfect, these facilities provide a practical, innovative, and cost-effective opportunity to small medical device firms fretting over the bottom line. And saving money is always a fab idea.
Shana Leonard, Editor