National Science Foundation Small Business Technology Transfer (NSF STTR) recently awarded a $225,000 grant to a Texas Tech University student who is preparing to earn a doctorate in chemical engineering in August. The sizable grant will help Jeevan Maddala commercialize his doctoral work in biomedical and pharmaceutical trials, which looks to significantly speed up the process, potentially leading to key drug discoveries that could save many lives.

Maddala has been at Texas Tech since the fall of 2009 and has worked toward developing this new technology with the end goal of obtaining funding, starting up a new company and commercializing the technology. During his studies, he developed a keen interest in microfluidic devices, which utilize nano-sized plumbing systems with “pipes” the size of human hairs that are just microns thick to rapidly transport fluids, allowing scientists to dramatically increase the speed of drug discovery through being able to efficiently process large amounts of chemicals.

Maddala observed that, up until this point, the development of microfluidic devices has been slow and painfully iterative, usually involving a great deal of trial-and-error mock-ups before developing a working system . His idea is to minimize this inefficient “trial and error” process by creating a computer program and working through mockups in a virtual design format, making for a faster, more precise development process, as well as allowing for much more complex, large-scale device designs. The designs could then be manufactured using a 3D printer.
Since the crux of Maddala’s concept relies on an incredibly accurate, sophisticated software solution, he has collaborated with chemical engineering professors Dr. Raghunathan Rengasamy and Dr. Siva Vanapalli to develop a set of algorithms that power the software. The algorithms allow the software to virtually generate  hundreds of microfluidic device designs that can be fully customized to the user’s specifications. The algorithms also test and analyze each design, and can create thousands of design permutations.

To date, the software prototype has showed great promise prompting Maddala to begin to seek funding for commercialization. ”Texas Tech provided me with the right environment to pursue my dreams,” Maddala said. “My background in engineering helped me prepare the technical part of the proposal for the National Science Foundation; the challenge was in writing the business plan.”

Most engineering-based technical universities maintain an office to help their students seek out and obtain funding for their projects. The Texas Tech Office of Technology Commercialization (OTC) and the Texas Tech University Small Business Development Center both helped Maddala and Dr. Rengasamy file a patent for the new technology. Ryan Reber, a technology licensing specialist in the OTC, noted Maddala’s tenacity in not only developing a viable concept, but also seeking to successfully commercialize it:

“We need more graduate students, like Jeevan, to have an entrepreneurial mindset and to focus their research on solving real world problems. The end goal is to actually transfer this innovation to the market. We are still a long way from doing that, but by filing for a patent and beginning to develop a business plan with Jeevan’s team and the Small Business Development Center, our office has taken steps to expedite the commercialization process.”

To be sure, the NSF grant is a step in the right direction, and will allow Maddala to focus on promoting his new software solution in order to obtain more funding and the other resources needed to bring it to market. The end result is to build a fully automated system that will design and physically construct highly complex droplet-based microfluidic platforms, starting from just a design concept of a user. Once Maddala is able to demonstrate that his system can design, test, and construct a custom microfluidic platform, he will have seen his idea through to its conclusion. Should Maddala’s technology prove viable, it could lead to substantially faster-developed pharmaceutical and biomedical applications, which include protein crystallization, stem cell growth, and drug screening, as well as the creation of new biological applications such as the separation of cancer cells from healthy cells.