Wednesday, May 04, 2005

Invention could fend off sharks

Unexpected things can come up on you rather suddenly. Vladimir Vlad, an expatriate Romanian who immigrated to South Africa in 1990, discovered that for himself while scuba diving off the South African coast. He had several encounters with "carcharadon," the Latin word for a much more familiar term - the Great White Shark.

Not only were the meetings unnerving in themselves, they also got Vlad worried about his son, Sasha, who enjoys surfing in the shark-infested ocean near Capetown. Vlad was called to Iowa two years ago to help the Des Moines Menace soccer team with planning for a sports festival, which was part of a campaign to build a new sports stadium. He later decided to import his company, and he selected the Iowa State University Research Park as a location.

After moving to Ames, and mindful of the potential danger to Sasha, Vlad developed an idea for a scuba diver's wet suit that would project electric current to ward off overly curious (or hungry) sharks. There are already items like this on the market. A battery-operated model marketed in Australia, for example, can generate four volts. But it's cumbersome.

The current is projected from a long electrode, and the diver must carry the heavy battery, which frequently has to be recharged. But Vlad's invention will generate up to 25 volts and require no battery at all. Instead, the movements of the diver's body, combined with a special substance of "Electroceramics" materials and Terfenol-D (manufactured by nearby Etrema Products Inc.) will produce the power to ward off sharks.

It's one of three inventions being developed by Glycon Technologies, a business founded by a remarkable inventor who holds a PhD in biomechanics and kinesiology. Vlad's other two inventions, now in various stages of development, include the "E-tire" and a fermentation process to separate collagen from eggs.

The "E-tire," a standard passenger vehicle tire equipped with the same current-developing substance as the wet suit. With a pad of current-generating material placed inside the tire, it will be possible for the movement of the tire (and its pressure on the road) to produce an electrical current, which could be harvested and stored by mechanisms carried onboard the vehicle and used to propel it without the use of conventional fuels.

The fermentation process separates collagen membranes from the inside of eggshells. Harvested collagen could be sold to medical customers for things like tissue regeneration, wound care products such as sealants and dressings, or facial implants. "Much of the collagen on the market now comes from bovine and porcine sources (cattle and hogs)," said Vlad. He said that bovine collagen now costs more than $2,600 per gram, and recombinant human collagen from a company in Finland is priced at $1,500 per gram.

Avian collagen (from chicken eggs) is also useful for human medical procedures, but it's been difficult to extract from the inside of the eggshells. Vlad predicts that his process will produce usable collagen within 48 hours. And every 10 eggs would produce a gram of collagen. "Iowa leads the nation in eggshell waste," said Vlad. "And it costs hundreds of thousands of dollars to landfill the eggshells."

Vlad has made his presence in central Iowa felt in other ways. Using his knowledge of kinesiology, Vlad has developed physiological profiles of soccer players in Ames, Des Moines and Drake University. The complicated spread sheets delineate a host of body and skeletal characteristics of each player. Vlad says it's possible to select the best position for a soccer player depending on his or her body characteristics.

A former soccer coach, Vlad assembled teams from the poverty-stricken black townships of South Africa and turned them into international champions, including two titles earned in the United States. It was through soccer that Vlad became acquainted with the man who would eventually become his chief financial officer. John Brandt of Des Moines had experience as regional vice president for a national medical company that operates worker compensation clinics. He was also involved with a semiprofessional soccer team in Des Moines, and has known Vlad for most of two years.

"Our company is going to market intellectual property," said Brandt. "In that respect, we're different from other companies in the Research Park. We have multiple patents and are looking for clients who want to take the ideas and run with them. We could always industrialize one of these ideas ourselves, but it's more cost-effective to do it this way." Brandt has been deeply involved in discussions with companies that could be end-users of Glycon's intellectual property. For now, Glycon is moving forward with developing its ideas. For example: ยจ A prototype for the electric shark repellent wet suit is now being tested by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Vlad's son, Sasha, has developed a PowerPoint presentation describing the E-tire and work is being done on a mechanism that would be most efficient at harvesting the electrical current that the moving tire will generate. Experts at ISU and Indian Hills College are helping to test various aspects of the eggshell collagen-extracting process.

Iowa State University is proving to be an invaluable partner in other ways as well. "We have access to highly qualified people and fully-equipped labs, at a very reasonable price," Vlad said.

He has also hired two student-interns, Chris Poutre, a chemical engineering major, and Mitch Schultz, an electrical engineering major. Each of intern is responsible for one of the pilot projects. Poutre will work on collagen extraction, while Schultz is working on the E-tire.


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