Research experience leads to new tool for scientists

Electrostatic Particle Trap (E-Trap)
Alex Francis: Graduate student, mechanical engineering

Alex Francis thought he knew where his life was headed career-wise. He imagined earning his undergrad and graduate degrees in mechanical engineering, and then working in industry. Period.

But an experience at UWM has opened his eyes to a whole new range of possibilities. “I was looking for courses I could enroll in where I could apply my ideas,” says the mechanical engineering graduate student. He heard about Student Startup Challenge (SSC) by taking “Innovation and Commercialization,” in which student teams develop business plans for actual products.

Francis won the SSC with an idea for an electrostatic trap called “E-Trap.” Originally developed by UWM Associate Professor of Chemistry Jorg Woehl, E-Trap is a tool that allows researchers to corral tiny particles like viruses and DNA molecules so they can be studied under a microscope.

The device involves a microscope slide that has been treated with a thin, metal coating, but at the center is a small, circular space that’s left untreated. When a particle floats into the circle, the device applies voltage to the coated portions, creating a kind of “force field” to hold the particle in the circular viewing area.

Francis and Woehl met last spring through the class. Francis was particularly excited to work on E-Trap; he’d used similar tools as an undergraduate research assistant in the mechanical engineering lab at UWM.

And because scientists are increasingly interested in studying particles on a smaller scale, he’s optimistic about the potential for such technologies.

“These devices help you manipulate and see things at a micro-level, and possibly nanolevel,” he says. The technology is patented through the UWM Research Foundation.

Francis, a two-time marathon runner, wanted to help move E-Trap on to the next phase of development. So he asked Woehl if he could enter E-Trap in the SSC, and Woehl gave his blessing.

Through the SSC, he’s had the opportunity to meet established entrepreneurs and has received help in identifying potential customers for E-Trap. He has worked with a student team from a multidisciplinary course known as “Product Realization,” which developed a fixture to hold the E-Trap under a microscope. The goal is to allow researchers to “plug-in and go.”

Francis says the SSC process has helped him think like an entrepreneur, a skill that can enhance what students are already learning in college. “Startup projects keep you thinking, keep you active and motivated,” Francis says. “I think it’s great for students to stay motivated with something that they really like to do.”

The experience has also taught him to look at the possibility of failed attempts with more tolerance. “You hear this a lot about startup businesses: not all ideas succeed, so the more businesses you try to start, the more likely you are to have one prevail.”

Update: Francis has incorporated his company, which is now called Isopoint Technologies. He recently took first place in the New Ventures Business Plan Competition, sponsored by the Lubar School of Business and La Macchia Enterprises, winning $7,500. He is exploring a link with the Medical College of Wisconsin and is concentrating on customer discovery.