From laboratory to marketplace

January 09, 1995|By Michael Dresser | Michael Dresser,Sun Staff Writer

For SeaSafe Technologies and PRIDE Systems, two of Maryland's newest high-technology companies, the road from the laboratory to the marketplace ran right through Room 143 of the University of Baltimore's new business center.

That was where the student members of the teams that will launch the two companies stood up recently and submitted their conclusion that they were prepared to take a homework assignment and turn it into a business.

The teams' presentations were part of a groundbreaking project that brings together graduate students from varying disciplines to shepherd a potentially lucrative technology from a federal or corporate research laboratory to the commercial marketplace.

That process, called technology transfer, is receiving increasing attention from Maryland economic development officials, who are eager to reap benefits from the many research facilities in the state.

Mark Pringle thinks he's found a technology that's ripe for transferring and he's eager to do some reaping.

Recently, he and fellow members of his team faced a class in entrepreneurship and explained their concept, which is derived from a computer program developed by NASA and Computer Sciences Corp.'s Sciences Division in Lanham to write software to control the placement of satellites. That program can be used to create "expert systems" -- a form of artificial intelligence that synthesizes the experiences of recognized experts in a given field to help people make good decisions.

Mr. Pringle, a candidate for a master's degree in business administration, was assigned to the technology last spring through the university's Lab to Market Project, a three-semester course. In the first part of the project, he and his team were asked to evaluate the technology and think of ways to commercialize it.

Team members said it was Mr. Pringle who came up with the idea of using the program to write software to help guide the navigation of huge oil tankers. In effect, the program would create a composite navigation "expert" who would use information gathered by sophisticated radar and satellite systems to advise tanker captains and crews on the best way to avoid collisions.

With such a system, the program could help avert oil spills such as the one that occurred when the Exxon Valdez ran aground in Alaska's Prince William Sound in 1989.

During the summer and fall sessions a team made up of five representatives of the business, law and publication design graduate programs researched and evaluated the technical feasibility and market potential of the idea.

Using slides, graphics and a well-choreographed presentation, the team told the class that their concept could yield an economically viable product, which they dubbed NavEx. To bring it to market, they told the class, they plan to incorporate SeaSafe Technologies.

Then came the grilling -- from students, professors, deans and local business executives and entrepreneurs. Sometimes university President H. Mebane Turner stops by to fire some questions at the teams, said Lanny Herron, the University of Baltimore economics professor who directs the Lab to Market program.

After about 15 minutes, the SeaSafe group's time was up. The answers were not entirely polished, but the team showed an impressive grasp of the topic. Dr. Herron appeared pleased.

He had even more to be impressed with when the PRIDE Systems group took its turn. The team grabbed its audience's attention with a professional-quality videotape, produced by publication design student Nabila Haddad.

In it, a thief uses binoculars to steal a woman's personal identification number as she uses an automatic teller machine, then grabs her purse with her bank card in it. The message: Banks are losing more than $500 million a year to ATM fraud, and PRIDE has a technology that can help them. Adapted from a target recognition system developed by the Navy, it uses facial recognition and audio identification technologies to verify a bank card user's identity.

Dr. Herron said he was enthusiastic about the technology's prospects, noting that team members Peter Cooper and David Kinser had put their names on the patent application for such a security system. "It'sgoing to be a winner," he said.

Not every team had a sunny message to deliver. Ruefully, one team reported that its assigned technology, secure communications hardware from the labs of Martin Marietta Corp., would receive a chilly reception in a marketplace that perceives fiber-optic cable as inherently secure. They recommended that efforts to license the technology be dropped.

Afterward, Dr. Herron said the team would not be marked down for presenting a negative recommendation. "What we're trying to do from a pedagogical standpoint is to seek the truth," he said. "We don't kill the messenger."

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