APL honors its inventors in the open

Hopkins' secretive laboratory makes successes public

Commercial possibilities

Top award goes to sensor that detects spoilage

June 28, 2000|By Julie Bykowicz | Julie Bykowicz,SUN STAFF

The Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory in Laurel, in a break with its habit of secrecy, offered a glimpse into developing technology yesterday at a ceremony honoring the lab's top inventors of 1999.

At its first Invention of the Year Awards, the APL recognized four research teams for developments in the fields of food safety, computer science, health and transportation.

Top honors went to a trio of Howard County scientists who developed "Molecularly Imprinted Polymer Sensors for Food Safety Applications," a plastic device that indicates food spoilage.

Columbia resident Craig Kelly and Ellicott City residents George Murray and Manuel Uy received plaques and shared a $2,500 award for the sensor project.

Uy said he was shocked to win the award because the team made the invention public only about a month ago. The sensor invention, he said, is a piece of plastic - each costing "many, many fractions of a cent" - that can be placed on the shrink wrap surrounding a piece of meat, fish or poultry.

Through molecular imprinting, a plastic chip turns from green to red as the food spoils, eliminating the need for expiration dates.

Uy said expiration dates are not always dependable because they don't account for extreme temperatures or other factors.

The team has obtained a patent for the product and is seeking a company to produce it. The Applied Physics Laboratory is part of the Johns Hopkins University and does not produce any products it develops.

A member of the lab for 27 years, Uy said this is the first work-related function his wife has been able to attend with him.

"If nothing else," Uy said, "the awards ceremony proves to my wife that I have really been working all these years."

A team of two Howard County residents and one Montgomery resident was a finalist in the competition, garnering plaques and a $1,000 award to share.

The team calls its invention "Hybrid Software/Hardware Technique for High Speed Backplane Messaging."

The technique allows embedded devices, such as those in a microwave or car, to communicate with each other. Team member Paul Bade of Ellicott City said he developed a spin-off company, called Dot 21, to market the invention.

Bade said the awards ceremony is an ideal way to encourage scientists to step forward with their inventions.

"A lot of great ideas die in inventors' minds," he said. "This is a way to get us to come up with ideas and make them widely known."

Another finalist, a team of two Howard County researchers and one Baltimore surgeon, was honored for its development of the "Rapid Chest Tube Inserter."

Team member Ron Rosen described it as a method of inserting a chest tube in less than 30 seconds, a considerable reduction from the 10 to 15 minutes it now takes skilled doctors to do.

The third team honored as finalists developed "Microwave and Acoustic Detection of Drowsiness." Matthew Bevan, of Silver Spring, said the invention uses radar to sense when a person is falling asleep.

He expected the device to be used mostly by drivers. He said the team has approached General Motors Corp., Amtrak, Learjet Inc. and several other transportation companies about testing the product.

An independent panel of judges selected the four top inventions from a pool of 83 and based their decisions on creativity, novelty and potential benefit to society.

The laboratory sits on 365 acres in Laurel. With a staff of 2,800, it is the largest employer in Howard County. More than half of the lab's researchers live in Howard.

APL tries to stay out of the public eye because much of its research involves national security and is classified.

Last July, the laboratory opened an Office of Technology Transfer, a division that converts technology developed for military purposes into commercial uses. The office encourages scientists to pursue their ideas beyond the lab.

"Often, people don't think they've invented anything," said Kristin Gray, marketing director for the transfer office. "They think they're just doing their day-to-day work and don't realize they've stumbled on something new."

Gray and Wayne Swann, director of technology transfer, were involved with a similar office at the University of Maryland before joining APL.

Swann said that when he began the technology transfer office at Maryland a dozen years ago, he also started awards ceremonies.

"It's great for providing recognition and rewards for innovation, which is a big part of the lab," said Swann. "While the awards ceremony is new, innovation here at the lab is not."

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