By Tom Ballard, Director of Innovation and Entrepreneurial Initiatives, Pershing Yoakley & Associates, P.C.
Shigetoshi Eda came to the University of Tennessee (UT) in 2003 as a Research Assistant Professor in the Center for Wildlife Health within the Department of Forestry, Wildlife, and Fisheries.
Jayne Wu came joined the UT faculty a year later, coming from the University of Notre Dame where she was a Research Associate in the institution’s Center for Microfluidics and Medical Diagnostics.
Yet, it was five years before the two met and began their collaboration, thanks to an introduction through an industry executive.
At the time, Eda had just completed a Postdoctoral Fellowship at the University of California Riverside.
“I was trying to develop a diagnostic test for Johne’s disease in cattle,” he told us in citing the fatal gastrointestinal disease. The signs of Johne’s disease – rapid weight loss and diarrhea – are similar to those for several other diseases, so laboratory tests are needed to confirm the diagnosis.
“The test in the market at the time had very low accuracy,” Eda explained. “Our research team found a way to solve it.”
Within two years, he says that the team “accidentally found a solution while doing experiments.” Eda filed an invention disclosure and secured a patent.
Just developing a better test was not enough for the Japanese-born researcher. He wanted to do something more to help those who raised cattle.
“I wanted to build a small device that farmers could use onsite,” Eda said.
He applied to the UT Institute of Agriculture for funding, but the effort was unsuccessful.
Next, Eda turned to Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL) where he met Robert Foote and Robert Shaw. They co-wrote a publication, but that is about as far as it went.
“It’s not easy to go back and forth,” Eda says of the distance between the two organizations. In addition, funding priorities also were factors.
“I wanted to find a way to partner with someone at UT,” Eda said.
Meanwhile, Wu was focused on her research interests in microfluidic electrokinetics, lab-on-a-chip, and instrumentation for low noise detection.
“Almost as soon as I got here, I started working with Eli Greenbaum,” she said, referencing the long-time scientist at Oak Ridge National Laboratory. One of his inventions – an algal biosensor technology approach to protection of source drinking water from chemical agent attacks – won a 2005 Federal Laboratory Consortium Award of Excellence in Technology Transfer.
Wu worked with Greenbaum on this technology that is currently being commercialized by SecureWaters, a start-up profiled on several occasions on teknovation.biz.
As she pursued her interest in the lab-on-a-chip technology, Wu said there were too many competing technologies.
“I wanted to make some improvements and thought someone at the Institute of Agriculture was a most suitable partner,” she explained.
So, how did they get connected?
NEXT: An email exchange with an industry executive made a difference.