UNF Has Sensory Perception; Scientists Want to Market Devices to Detect Bacteria, Other Dangers by "Sniffing"

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Byline: JEREMY COX

Could this be the University of North Florida's Gatorade?

You know, the product that jumps from the laboratory to the commercial sector, reaping acclaim and millions of dollars in royalties for the university in which it was created.

UNF scientists have developed a quartet of high-tech sensors that can detect the presence of certain substances, gases or disease-causing bugs simply by "sniffing" the air or coming into contact with a chemical.

Among the technology's possible medical and commercial uses: alerting surgeons to staph bacteria on their operating tables, detecting lung cancer on a patient's breath, finding pollutants in lakes and streams and catching spoiled food before it hits supermarket shelves.

David Hayes is the director of the UNF business school's three-month-old Coggin Pilot Project for Innovation, an effort to commercialize the university's scientific breakthroughs. His job is to make a hard sell, and he has no trouble doing that with the sensor technology.

Forget Gatorade, he said Thursday, standing in the cramped university lab where some of the sensors were developed. These will be bigger because they can be used in a myriad of sectors, including government, agriculture, health and manufacturing.

"It's an easy sell for us to say, 'Look at this technology and what it could do for the health community.' So let's push it out," he said.

Hayes is putting the finishing touches on a pitch to prospective manufacturers. So far, his work has concentrated on developing informational materials and commissioning a student-authored market feasibility report. It found that the four sensors offered "unique capabilities and features" but noted that each faces potential competition from similar technologies.

So far, one sensor has been granted a patent, and the other three have patents pending. UNF is looking to either spin off the sensors to a manufacturer, a deal in which the university would get royalties, or create a joint company with a device maker.

Jay Huebner is the lead researcher on two of the devices and helped colleagues develop the other two. The story of one of his inventions is a case study in science leading to happy accidents.

When he joined UNF as one of its founding professors in 1972, Huebner, a trained electrical engineer and biophysicist, wanted to study how plants turn sunlight into energy, a process called photosynthesis. Since no devices existed to measure the transfer of energy, he diverted his attention to creating one.

"All of a sudden, we realized we were making sensors," Huebner said, grasping an early version of the device between his thumb and forefinger. It looks relatively primitive: a trio of silver sensors attached to a circuit board the size of a fortune cookie message.

Six years later, the now-patented device is known as a photoelectric chemical sensor (PECS). It works by measuring the variation in voltage created by a certain substance on a sensor when it is exposed to a special light strobe. That burst of electricity, though tiny and brief, is enough to tell researchers what substance is present. …