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A Relationship That's More Than Skin Deep


A group meeting at the Johns Hopkins University Whiting School of Engineering in Baltimore, Maryland, may differ from the gatherings of your average academic research groups. On any given day, you may find Terrence Vargo, president and CEO of Integument Technologies, discussing the company's Teflon-based coatings, describing its suppliers, or profiling its customers. Vargo and other Integument employees aren't there as invited speakers; they are key collaborators in departmental research. They provide Johns Hopkins engineering students unique exposure to life at a small company.

That exposure stems from an unusual agreement signed by Integument and Johns Hopkins in 2002. Integument agreed to give Johns Hopkins a royalty-free, nonexclusive license to its patented method of introducing nanoparticles into particles, which faculty and students can use freely in their research and feature in grant applications. In exchange, the company receives the intellectual property rights to any new discoveries developed directly from its technology and a right of first refusal for indirect discoveries.

Nanoparticles into Nanoscale

Existing methods for incorporating nanoparticles lead to aggregation and a range of nanoparticle size, making it difficult to interpret and reproduce experiments. Integument's technology relies on the spaces that exist between polymer chains. The technique introduces nanoparticles into the spaces between polymer chains, which gives scientists tight control over the size and distribution of the particles.

What's in it for the academics? Engineers at Johns Hopkins can use the method in their research, and the method has been instrumental in securing $5 million to $7 million in research funding over the past 3 years, primarily from the Department of Defense. The funds are split roughly evenly between the company and the university. Sometimes the company takes the lion's share of a grant, sometimes the university, depending on which organization is the lead contact on the grant.

Marc Donohue

The arrangement is quite unusual, according to Marc Donohue, associate dean for research at Johns Hopkins' Whiting School of Engineering, who helped negotiate the deal. "Normally when you have contact with a company, they give the university some money, they want you to do some research, and usually they provide a relatively small amount of information about their process or products. Even if you sign a nondisclosure agreement, they only tell you enough so that they think you can do the work you need to do for them."

Integument's approach is different. "When we have a question, it doesn't matter what it is, they answer it. It's a complete exchange of information -- they've essentially opened up all their technology to us," says Donohue.

Integument's current products are based on a method for modifying Teflon, a polymer well known for its nonstick surface. The trouble is that Teflon is so inert that few methods are available to modify it. While doing a postdoc at the University of Buffalo, Vargo discovered a way to modify Teflon, and that technique became the intellectual-property basis of Integument when he started the company in 1995.

Today, Integument manufactures and has begun to sell a form of Teflon wallpaper that can be placed on surfaces to protect against corrosion. The product is particularly useful for the food processing industry, where the alternative is paint that must be reapplied frequently. But Teflon's stability to heat, acid, and other stresses gives it potential for a wide range of applications.

Vargo intends Integument to become more than just a high-tech wallpaper company, but the company's Teflon wallpaper is a good fit for the technology. Integument manufactures a number of other films, coatings, and linings, but Teflon is the star: Vargo recognized early that nanotechnology could alter the properties of Teflon in commercially useful ways, and his wallpaper could be the perfect delivery vehicle.

For example, a Teflon coating could be modified with nanoparticles to control adhesion, improve mechanical or thermal stability, incorporate antimicrobial or chemical recognition elements, or create gas or ion-permeable barriers. He developed several patents along those lines, but Integument's small size and lack of resources made it difficult to develop them further. He considered seeking venture capital backing, but another solution presented itself when a professional acquaintance, John Brupbacher, moved from a competing company to Johns Hopkins to establish the Center for Nondestructive Evaluation in 2002. He approached Vargo about setting up a joint effort between the company and the university.

Vargo was interested, but he insisted that Integument maintain its intellectual property rights. Universities often demand rights to any technology developed by their faculty or students, and this was unacceptable to him. "(Intellectual property) was all we had. We weren't selling any products; we were a development company," he recalls. After several months of haggling with the technology transfer department, the two organizations had hammered out an agreement that made everybody happy.

The deal with Hopkins helps boost the company's prospects for research. The company has a useful technique for incorporating nanoparticles into polymers, but with only about ten employees, it lacks the resources to pursue the many possible applications. By lending rights to engineers at Johns Hopkins, those ideas can be explored and possibly turned into technologies that could later be licensed to other companies.

Eye on Industry

The program is still small. According to Donohue, the projects include about ten Hopkins representatives--faculty, students, and technical staff--though that number should jump soon to about 15 as a result of a recently awarded grant.

The arrangement gives students a rare glimpse of professional life in industry. Vargo and other company representatives visit the campus frequently, attending research group meetings, discussing company research, and answering questions. "Integument is so open to us about everything they do--their suppliers, their customers, and the realities of their business world; the students have a window [to] what it's like to be in a relatively small, high-tech startup company," says Donohue. "The students aren't expected to solve their problems. But they hear about those problems, and it's [a perspective] that even faculty rarely get to see."

Students also get a taste of real industrial research. Not surprisingly, the projects focus on practical applications, but students use academic-style, fundamental research to solve problems, "with a goal that in 2 or 3 or 5 years you're going to be answering important questions," says Donohue.

Many projects are focused on particular applications, such as developing a modified polymer to help prevent lightning strikes or reduce drag. The program is structured so that new developments have the potential to be commercialized quickly, potentially giving students and faculty a look at the development half of industrial R&D. Three or four projects are in various stages of customer beta testing, Donohue says.

Eye on Academics

That applied focus can help push research forward, says David MacRae, a research scientist who joined Integument in 2003. He became familiar with Integument, and met with Vargo, while he was doing a postdoc at the Institute for Lasers, Photonics, and Biophotonics, which is affiliated with the University of Buffalo in New York. Integument was leasing lab space from the university at the time. His assignment was to synthesize semiconducting nanoparticles for characterization by others. "I'd do my work and pass it on to somebody, and I'd never find out what happened. . . . A lot of discoveries come out of fundamental research," but they never get developed, MacRae notes. "There's a point at which it's counterproductive because you're shooting in the dark."

MacRae had initially planned to take a postdoc at the Naval Research Laboratory in Washington, D.C., but when he came to Vargo to talk about an idea he had for starting a company, Vargo offered to hire him. MacRae was torn. The Naval Research Laboratory position would be secure--80% of those who started in the lab were hired on permanently, he was told--while a small company like Integument might be bankrupt and nonexistent in a few short years. A key factor was the company's relationship with Johns Hopkins. He knew that he would be able to work with academics on interesting research problems, and he knew that he would be able to publish. "If Integument didn't have a relationship like the one with Hopkins, it would probably have been completely off my radar," MacRae says.

Indeed, smaller high tech companies often have trouble attracting high quality Ph.D. graduates because they don't allow their scientists to publish. The development of a new technology is scary because there's a good chance the company won't survive, and the young scientist will be left with a resume hole. During the tech boom, companies offered lucrative stock options as an enticement, "but those days are essentially over," Vargo says.

Those heady days are in the past, but start-up companies are still an intriguing option. Young scientists are often at a stage in life when they could take the risk posed by working for a start-up company, which, in return for the risk and lots of hard work, offers opportunity for tremendous professional growth, as well as an exciting scientific atmosphere.

But the specter of a stunted career discourages many, a specter that, like many such, may be partly a manifestation of fear of the unknown. The Integument program allows students at Hopkins to become familiar with small-scale, research-based industry, giving them the opportunity both to explore their own professional desires and to evaluate a company's prospects in a future job search. Through the partnership with Johns Hopkins, says Vargo, "you can work with people and advance your career. There is freedom to exchange intellectual ideas."

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