Tech Transfer - University of Michigan

Improving Our Quality of Life

Handy Lab

In a birthing suite, a woman goes into labor. The nurse on duty quickly takes a vaginal swab, places it in a syringe containing a small amount of buffer solution, and injects the liquid into a port on a small hand-held instrument. Then, by pressing a single button, she triggers a fully automated DNA analysis. In less than 30 minutes, she'll know whether or not the baby could be exposed to Grade B Streptococcus (GBS), a potentially fatal pathogen-treatable if detected early-that's carried by up to 20 percent of all new mothers.

Thanks to a start-up company known as HandyLab-and the breakthrough research findings of two University of Michigan graduate students-this scenario is being repeated in pre-clinical trials at the UM Medical Center and Baylor College of Medicine in Houston. Within the next three to five years, the same on-site technology may be widely used for diagnosing a whole range of infectious and genetically-based diseases, and for detecting airborne pathogens such as anthrax and smallpox.

The research that drives these remarkable nano-devices was developed over a period of seven years by chemical engineering Ph.D. students Kalyan Handique and Sundaresh Brahmasandra and their faculty advisors, Professors Dr. Mark Burns (Chemical Engineering) and Dr. David Burke (Human Genetics). In 1998, their portable acid- and protein-based analysis systems earned a place on Science Magazine's list of Top Inventions of the Year. And in June of 2000, the two former students launched HandyLab with $2.4 million in funding.

In 2001, the company began seeking $3.5 million in Series B funding, and came away with $5.5 million instead. "To be oversubscribed in this economy is quite an achievement," notes HandyLab President and CEO Michael Farmer. He points out that the company is now receiving significant additional funding in the form of Defense Department and NIH grants and R&D contracts. Among HandyLab investors is the Wolverine Venture Fund, administered by Michigan Business School students.

"We're very pleased with the business relationship we've had with the University of Michigan," Farmer says, adding that "Tech Transfer was absolutely crucial to the start of the company. Without their contributions, particularly in the areas of patent protection and business planning, there wouldn't be a HandyLab today."

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