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Winter 2001
THE ECONOMIC ENGINE THAT COULD
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The company was sold to Nasdaq-listed Cytyc Corp. in October 2001 for a combination of cash and stock that valued the deal at $167.5 million. At the time of the acquisition, ProDuct Health had 40 employees.

Sometimes diverse strands of university research can come together in ways that lead to new products and business opportunities. The California NanoSystems Institute, a joint venture between UCLA and UC Santa Barbara, has been created to facilitate cross-disciplinary research and commercialization of the resulting inventions. A good example of how this can work comes from a recent collaboration between research at UC Santa Barbara in marine biology and at UCLA in microbiology and computer science.

At UC Santa Barbara, research was conducted into an environmental problem that was weakening the shells of abalone along the California coast. That investigation led to an understanding of how abalone shells develop their strength. A graduate student at UCLA isolated the protein that takes what is essentially chalk from the sea and at low sea temperatures transforms it into the very hard, strong and thin layers that make up a healthy abalone shell. By contrast, most high-strength material in commercial use is produced at extremely high temperatures, with tremendous pressure, using a lot of energy and often creating environmentally unfriendly waste in the process. A computer-science researcher wondered if the same protein could be used to manufacture strong, thin film layers for making semiconductors through a more energy-efficient and less wasteful process than is currently used. Out of the collaborative research, a new company, Semzyme, was formed. If all goes according to plan, the economic potential of the discovery is enormous.

"That is the sort of work we hope to be doing," says Martha Krebs, director of the California NanoSystems Institute and associate vice chancellor for research at UCLA. "The hope is that the facilities we [are constructing] at both UCLA and UCSB will enable scientists to work together, and will attract new people who will work across disciplinary lines on collaborative projects."

The Institute is also developing "incubator labs" where researchers from the private sector can come to work with university researchers at an early "pre-competitive" stage. "That will help companies to better assess the commercial potential of university research," says Krebs.

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