Small-Tech Attraction

Lab-on-a-chip technology developer stays put in Ann Arbor, Mich.

Old-line industrial states seeking to diversify their economic base would do well to follow Michigan's lead and start small. Sensicore Inc.'s lab-on-a-chip sensor falls into what some dub "small-tech," a sector that encompasses microtechnology and nanotechnology. And thanks in part to economic incentives from the state of Michigan, Sensicore has decided to stay in Ann Arbor as it moves to commercialize its technology and begins manufacturing devices to test and monitor water. "A lot of high-tech actually starts here but leaves," says Sensicore CEO Malcolm Kahn. "Jobs in the high-tech sector are important to Michigan. They're looking for ways to encourage companies not only to get started here, but to stay and manufacture." Sensicore's basic technology was spun out of research conducted at the University of Michigan, whose facilities the company still uses for silicon processing and development. The company has also drawn on the expertise of the University's Wireless Integrated Microsystems Engineering Research Center, which is funded by the National Science Foundation along with several local universities and industrial partners. "From an education and technology area, the relationship with [the University of] Michigan has been absolutely fantastic," says Kahn. Given such connections, and the disruption involved in any relocation, why would the company consider moving? The answer: people. Most of the analytical and scientific instrument makers are currently clustered on the East and West coasts. The talent Sensicore will need as it gears up for initial production later in the year hasn't always been attracted to the Midwest. To help convince the company to stay the state granted Sensicore a tax credit that will save it up to $1.5 million over the next eight years, depending upon how many people it actually hires. The company expects eventually to create more than 150 new jobs. Today, Sensicore is "hiring like crazy," says Kahn. As of late March, the company had 22 people, up from seven last September. These people are primarily focused on technology development and engineering. The company is currently looking for manufacturing expertise, and will be hiring sales and marketing people later this year. A potential market disrupter, Sensicore's product is targeted to replace cumbersome chromatic kits that currently are used to test water in the field as well as to replace comparatively expensive online monitoring devices. The easy-to-use handheld device -- priced around $1,000 -- will use a small disposable chip, 4 by 5 millimeters, to quickly test 12 or more parameters of a water sample for chlorine, hardness, alkalinity, gas content and metal contaminants, such as arsenic. Immediate customers will be municipalities and labs. Networked together, the technology could be used to continuously monitor the nation's water supply at many more test points than can currently be tested today because of the high cost, Kahn says. Eventually, he sees the product finding an application in individual homes, which means small-tech today, could be big business tomorrow.

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