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Innovations showcased to venture capitalists

A miniature camera and "RecomboMouse," an animal that could aid the study of certain mutations, were among the MIT innovations currently in development that were presented to some 140 venture capitalists at the Institute's first conference for that community.

IdeaStream, held February 27-28, was developed to give venture capitalists "the opportunity to exchange ideas with MIT faculty who are creating the intellectual capital and innovations that are fueling next-generation technologies," said Thomas L. Magnanti, dean of the School of Engineering, which hosted the event.

The conference included panels on communications, tiny technology, bioengineering and networked software. Faculty members described pioneering work in each area.

In the tiny technology panel, for example, Martin A. Schmidt, professor of electrical engineering and computer science (EECS) and director of the Microsystems Technology Laboratories, described the maturation of microsystems technology, commonly associated with the production of integrated circuits. MIT researchers are exploiting the technology for a variety of other applications, he said.

These include the dime-sized drug delivery chip developed by Professor Michael J. Cima of materials science and engineering, Professor Robert Langer (the Kenneth J. Germeshausen Professor of Chemical and Biomedical Engineering), and Dr. John Santini (PhD 1999).

Also in the works: a tiny, low-power wireless camera, and a miniature chemical plant that could produce toxic chemicals at the point of use, eliminating the safety issues associated with transport. These projects are led by EECS Professor Charles G. Sodini and Professor Klavs F. Jensen (the Lammot Du Pont Professor of Chemical Engineering and Materials Science and Engineering), respectively.

In the same panel, Professor Jackie Y. Ying, the Raymond A. and Helen E. St. Laurent Associate Professor of Chemical Engineering, described the creation and applications of nanoparticles and the materials made from them. Sensors composed of specially engineered particles only about five nanometers in diameter, for example, can detect trace levels of gases such as carbon monoxide.

"If the carbon monoxide sensor were applied to an automobile's catalytic system, it could indicate when to increase or decrease oxygen to cut carbon monoxide emissions," Professor Ying said.

Other tiny-technology panelists were Henry I. Smith, the Keithley Professor of Electrical Engineering, and Lionel C. Kimerling, the Thomas Lord Professor of Materials Science and Engineering and director of the Materials Processing Center. The panel moderator was Rafael Reif, professor of EECS and associate department head.


Three-dimensional computerized images showing the structure of human skin are one result of Associate Professor Peter So's work in optical imaging. Professor So of mechanical engineering was on the bioengineering panel. Other applications of his work include noninvasive optical biopsies, and optical monitoring of various processes in living animals. The latter, for example, "will allow us to look at the flow of blood inside a living tumor," he said.

Bevin P. Engelward, assistant professor in the Division of Bioengineering and Environmental Health (BEH), is "developing new tools to detect genetic change in animals." One key project: the development of "RecomboMouse," in which cells affected by rare genetic events -- recombinations -- will fluoresce. The researchers could then detect individual fluorescent cells via one of Professor So's imaging techniques.

The system has a number of potential applications. "With a 3-D picture of [one of these cells], we could determine what cell type is susceptible to genetic change," said Professor Engelward. The system could also improve cancer chemotherapeutics. "Chemotherapy creates genetic damage, so the person becomes susceptible to secondary tumors," she said. "We could use the [RecomboMouse] system to screen for chemicals less likely to cause such damage."

The study of complex sugars, which are important because they allow cells to perceive their environment, is the focus of BEH Associate Professor Ram Sasisekharan's work. Because polysaccharides are far more complicated than either DNA or proteins -- one family alone has 32 building blocks, compared to four and 20 for DNA and proteins, respectively -- they have been harder to study. Recently, however, his group and others have developed tools that are opening the field.

For example, Professor Sasisekharan's team created a way to sequence sugars, or determine the order of their building blocks. And Assistant Professor Peter H. Seeberger of chemistry has developed a way to quickly create polysaccharides in the lab.

"Sequencing and synthesis of DNA and proteins were cornerstones of the biotechnology revolution -- genomics and proteomics," Professor Sasisekharan said. Similarly, the development of tools for studying polysaccharides is "key to glycomics."

The panel was moderated by Douglas Lauffenburger, professor of chemical engineering and bioengineering, co-director of BEH, and director of the Biotechnology Process Engineering Center.

A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on March 8, 2001.

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