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Tiny Particles Are Big Business For Univ. City Company

By KYW tech editor Ian Bush

PHILADELPHIA (CBS) -- It's tough to wrap your brain around something so miniscule it's a thousand times smaller than a human hair.  But when it comes to these nanoparticles, visualizing and measuring them can be a matter of life and death.

That's where a company based at the University City Science Center comes in.

"One nanoparticle in your hand would be about the size of, say, a tennis ball on the surface of our planet," explains Rob Hart.

To see and analyze it, "the core technology is a tiny little fiber optic," says Bernardo Cordovez.  "They're so small that they're actually made using the same technology that make transistors and microchips."

Hart and Cordovez run Optofluidics. Their innovation -- nanophotonics using chip-based fiber optics -- grabs the nanoparticle, measures it, and gleans scientific data.  It's necessary, since you'd be out of luck if you tried to see these things with a normal microscope.

"We don't really think about light affecting us like it affects these particles," Hart says. "We're getting hit by the sun and by the lights in this room, and we're actually getting pushed back in a miniscule way. We don't feel that -- it's almost impossible to measure in our scale -- but these particles experience that like they're getting slammed by a truck."

Customers of Optofluidics include academic institutions and analytical instrumentation labs.  But you benefit too -- for instance, when you pop a pill.

"You can give somebody much less of a dose of these particles, but they're far more potent," notes Hart.  So you reduce the side effect but increase the actual action of the drug."

It's easy to see, then, just how critical precision is when it comes to nanoparticles.  Hart says that's what Optofluidics products ensure.

"You can have something that's totally different: either an extremely toxic chemical placed in your body or something that goes right to a cancer cell and kills it," he explains.

Nanoparticles figure into paper, paint, ink, and stuff we have yet to imagine.  But both Cordovez and Hall say it's no mystery why they've set up shop in Philadelphia.

"What's really great about Philly is that there's a tremendous amount of great people both on the venture capital side and on the entrepreneurial side," says Cordovez.  "The Science Center brings all of those different groups together. It allows people not only to ideate new, important things, but also to actually transform them into real business."

"When we first started off, we didn't really know how to run a company," says Hall.  "All we had was a lot of enthusiasm, energy, and some good ideas. But here you can walk down the hall and talk to a successful CEO that's been in your shoes for three or four years, and then turn right and you have another three or four options of where to get advice. So I don't think it's an overstatement to say that we really wouldn't be where we are right now without the Science Center and the environment that we've been in here."


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