The Scientific Tide: Using Research to Drive Alabama’s Economy
This is a sample post prepared for the November 27 “Science: Becoming the Messenger” workshop at Tuskegee University in Alabama. Follow our tweets at #nsfmessenger.
When people from outside of the state think about Alabama, they probably think of our top ranked college football team. Or—like it, hate it—that Lynard Skynard song. Here’s what they’re probably not thinking about: The state’s scientific endeavors. In fact, they might be surprised to learn that Alabama research promises to help spur economic growth that, in turn, could improve the state’s per capita income—currently $34,800 per year, placing Alabama 42nd in the nation. If we want that to improve there’s just one path: Science and innovation.
That’s what the Alabama EPSCoR program (Experimental Program to Stimulate Competitive Research) aims to deliver. In 2008, it received a $ 15 million grant from the National Science Foundation to focus on four areas of existing scientific strength that have significant economic potential: Nanotechnology and Biomaterials, Biotechnology, Optics and Sensors, and Nanofabrication. Not everyone is familiar with these fields, so let’s break it down: In essence, Alabama scientists and engineers are on the cutting edge of building new products and novel materials (many of them designed at miniscule scales), that have clear commercial applications. In fact, these grants–and the researchers working under them–are already connected to a number of companies.
Start with nanotechnology innovations, which are based on re-designing matter at the atomic scale. In 2009, the University of Alabama at Birmingham professors Selvum Pillay and Uday Vaidya won first place (and $ 100,000 in start-up funding) in the Alabama Launchpad business competition. They then proceeded to create the company Innovative Composite Solutions, LLC, which designs lightweight and more energy efficient materials for military, aerospace, and other applications (see above). In other words, the company is replacing machine parts that were once made out of metal (which is heavy, and has to be replaced regularly) with parts made out of superior, longer-lasting composites. From airplane interiors to wind turbine blades, the applications of this technology are wide-ranging.
Then move on to our research on optics and sensors—which includes building lasers. In 2007, University of Alabama at Birmingham researchers, including physics professor Sergey Mirov, founded the company Photonics Innovations to produce laser applications for biomedical research and other realms. The company drew in over $ 2.5 million in funding from Department of Defense over three years, and then was acquired by the larger Massachusetts-based IPG Photonics Corporation, the global leading company in making so-called “fiber lasers” that are more powerful and efficient than standard lasers because their optical fibers are ‘doped’ with special materials, such as rare earth elements. It’s a classic example of how basic science research leads to commercial applications and, ultimately, economic growth.
Let’s give one last example of Alabama science leading to commercialization. The University of Alabama Center for Green Manufacturing spun off the start-up 525 Solutions, Inc., which has so far received two grants from the federal Small Business Innovation Research program (one from NSF) to pursue market applications. In the latter case, the company is developing a new bandage for ulcers resulting from diabetes—and doing so based on hard, protective materials contained in the shells of shrimp (which can also fight against bacteria) combined with a sponge-like component found in seaweed! Not exactly your typical band-aid, but the idea is to create a bandage that, because of its inherent properties, removes liquid from wounds (the seaweed/sponge component) while simultaneously combating the possibility of infection (the shrimp/anti-bacterial component). Hard to think of a better case of science leading—unexpectedly, but tangibly—to innovation.
There are certainly many more industry and commercial applications of Alabama science than these—but that’s a snapshot of the work going on here, and where it is leading. Earlier this month, the Montgomery Advertiser ran an opinion article citing Alabama’s relatively low per capita income and lack of competitiveness in garnering patents, and went on to argue that the state needs “greater ingenuity” in order to grow its economy. It’s a good argument—but there’s just one big thing the paper forgot to mention.
It’s already happening.
Thanks to Dr. Mahesh Hosur for help in preparing this article.