Nanotechnology once was confined strictly to the realm of science fiction. It conjured visions of vastly miniaturized submersibles coursing through the veins of patients in need of treatment, as in the ’60s sci-fi flick Fantastic Voyage.
However the world of super small technology is no longer a dream. It’s here today. And a husband-wife doctoral engineering duo — Keshab and Shubhra Gangopadhyay — at the University of Missouri in Columbia is taking its “nano” vision from the laboratory toward the marketplace.
Nanotechnology is the science and technology of building devices from single atoms and molecules. The basic dimension, the nanometer, is one one-billionth of a meter. To put that in perspective: a red blood cell is 7,000 nanometers in diameter; the head of pin is about 1 million nanometers wide.
The Gangopadhyays initiated their academic careers in their native India … Keshab earning a doctorate in nuclear engineering and Shubhra obtaining hers in physics. In the mid-’80s they each pursued scientific research and teaching — he in engineering and math, she in physics and engineering — at universities in India and Germany.
While in Germany, Keshab collaborated with a professor from the United States. That association led to an invitation for Keshab to serve as a visiting professor of mathematics at Texas Tech University in Lubbock, where Shubhra also pursued her academic career. During more than a decade at Texas Tech the Gangopadhyays also explored entrepreneurism by devoting time and energy to a company involved with semiconductors.
They left Texas Tech in 2003, when Shubhra was offered an engineering endowed professorship as the LaPierre Chair at the University of Missouri.
“She decided to accept the position and I supported her,” recalls Keshab. “After she assumed her new position, I preferred to be a research professor at the University, keeping a significant amount of time available for entrepreneurial activities.”
The following year the enterprising pair of academicians formed NEMS/MEMS Works LLC. They pointed their company toward the pursuit of nanotechnology in the fields of energy, security and medicine.
They are synthesizing new nanomaterials for integration using microfabrication techniques to make novel microdevices. Collaborating on this project with the Gangopadhyays are Steven Apperson, an MU doctoral student in electrical and computer engineering, and Luis Polo-Parada, assistant professor of medical pharmacology at MU.
“We are beginning to produce nanomaterials that can be used very effectively for biosensors and medical applications,” explains Keshab. “In the near future, the company envisages the manufacture of a shockwave generator microdevice for cell transfection, drug delivery and gene therapy.”
Among their efforts is a proto-type nanodevice to help physicians treat life-threatening illnesses. Dubbed “the smart-bomb of the nanotechnology world,” the molecular-sized device speeds and targets the delivery of drugs to treat diseases such as cancer. The miniscule device is “smart” because it can target only diseased cells. This would enable physicians to aim the proper amount of treatment to the exact location, while minimizing undesirable side effects.
Thus far the Gangopadhyays and their research team have tested their nanodevice only on animal and plant cells, achieving a high success rate. A significant amount of time — two to five years — and additional testing will be needed before this therapy is available for human applications.
While the Gangopadhyays are busy in the lab, they also are exploring commercialization possibilities for their work with the help of a dedicated team of tech-savvy business counselors at the Small Business & Technology Development Center in MU’s College of Engineering. SBTDC counselors Jim Gann and Paul Rehrig are an integral part of the NEMS/MEMS business team, according to Keshab.
“They have the right expertise and we’ve needed their professional help for business negotiation with the University and the outside business world,” says Keshab. “Jim has been helping us develop the business plan for each technology and Paul has been helping us with our SBIR proposals. They also mentor us in preparing our presentation to potential investors.”
The Gangopadhyays know the next five years are very important to the transfer of their nanotechnology research to the marketplace. They are confident the assistance of the SBTDC technology specialists — Gann and Rehrig — will help them develop a model for commercial success.
Update May 2014: The MU Office of Economic Development highlights Dr. Shubhra Gangopadhyay in week one of their Entrepreneur of the Week series. Read the story here.