Inventing a Better Future
From miniature beating hearts to hacker-resistant cellphones, UCI faculty, students and alumni have generated a multitude of remarkable inventions and discoveries.
Some hold the potential to change or even save lives, such as a newly patented cancer treatment. Others herald simpler pleasures, such as smoother skateboarding.
On these pages, we highlight nine examples from UCI’s innovative product parade. They range from an inexpensive gel that could defang deadly snake venom to an experimental fusion reactor that might someday produce bountiful clean electricity.
The latter technology, which requires Hades-like temperatures of 100 million degrees, is overseen at TAE Technologies by Anteater alumnus and company president Michl Binderbauer. “We’re working to create a mini-sun on Earth,” he says, “by smashing light atoms together in a plasma, then harnessing the energy that’s released to eventually power our homes, cars and more.”
Angling to create a new source of clean power, TAE Technologies (formerly Tri Alpha Energy) operates an experimental nuclear fusion reactor in a nondescript building on the outskirts of Orange County. Unlike most fusion chambers, TAE’s uses nonradioactive fuel and relies on high-energy particle beams to control the fiery plasma. The “friendly fusion” technology grew out of concepts developed with the late Norman Rostoker, a UCI physicist who co-founded the company. If successful on a larger scale, it could produce virtually limitless and pollution-free energy. Toshiki Tajima (above, left), UCI’s Norman Rostoker Chair in Applied Physics, serves as TAE’s chief science officer. Michl Binderbauer, Ph.D. ’96 (above, right) is president and chief technology officer.
A molecular gel that slithers through the bloodstream to neutralize snake venom – and may also be able to treat scorpion and spider bites – has emerged from the lab of UCI chemistry professor Ken Shea and Ph.D. student Jeffrey O’Brien. Priced at a fraction of the cost of traditional antidotes, the invention appears effective against multiple snake species and needs no refrigeration. Worldwide, snakebites kill more than 100,000 people a year and cripple millions more. The product has been licensed to startup DTI Holdings and is undergoing in vivo testing.
‘The Uber of recycling’
Instead of hauling cans and bottles to recycling centers for money, BottleRocket customers send a text to the company and everything they’ve collected gets picked up at their doorstep. And for each bin turned in, clients can choose a reward of $5 in cash, gift cards or donations to charity. Founded in a UCI dorm room by political science and economics major Arthur Avetisov ’15 and international studies student Brian Leung ’16 (above, far left), the company operates under the motto “You recycle. We pay. Earth wins.” The service, which is rolling out gradually across Orange County, has been dubbed “the Uber of recycling.”
Virtual reality voyages
Put on a headset and kayak through the Grand Canyon from the comfort of your own living room. Immersive Entertainment’s virtual reality ride floats past towering rock formations, interactive fish, blinking fireflies (in the product’s moonlight mode) and cascading waterfalls, leaving a number of YouTube reviewers spinning their heads in amazement. The company’s CEO and co-founder is Ciaran Foley (above), a startup veteran who graduated from UCI in 1996 with an information & computer science degree. Next up: a platform that will enable anyone to create a VR experience.
Like surfing on cement
When bolted to the front wheels of any skateboard, Waterborne’s adapter is designed to create the sensation of surfing on land. Inventor Patrick Dumas (above), a UCI business information management major, developed the prototype after experimenting with couch springs, shopping cart casters, scrap metal and various other “Frankenstein” parts. The product can be seen in action via numerous YouTube videos.
Saving diseased eyes
After decades of laboratory work, Drs. Henry Klassen and Jing Yang created retinal stem cells that can be injected into diseased eyes to halt and possibly reverse retinitis pigmentosa, an inherited condition that eventually leads to blindness. The therapy has been tested on animals and is now undergoing human trials at the Gavin Herbert Eye Institute on campus and at other facilities. Klassen and Yang, who teach in UCI’s ophthalmology department, co-founded jCyte.
Miniature human hearts in a jar
Based on UCI research, Novoheart converts human blood cells into cardiac tissue strips that are slowly formed into miniature beating organs. The tiny tickers can then be used to test new medications for cardiac safety before human trials. Novoheart was co-founded by UCI biomedical engineer Michelle Khine (above), who spent a decade collaborating on the technology with Ronald Li, a former professor at UC Davis and Johns Hopkins University who is now the company’s CEO. Inventions developed in Khine’s lab were licensed to Novoheart, which recently opened an office in the Cove at UCI and was listed on the Toronto Stock Exchange.
With funding from military agencies and the National Science Foundation, Irvine-based Immunant develops software tools to protect cellphones, computers and other devices from hackers. Launched by a trio of UCI computer science researchers – Stephen Crane, Ph.D. ’15 (above), Andrei Homescu, Ph.D. ’15 and postdoc Per Larsen – the company creates randomized, moving-target security systems that make it harder to break into computer hosts. Michael Franz, Chancellor’s Professor of computer science, also has a stake in the firm, which primarily serves software makers.
Video on steroids
Moscow’s subway system, Las Vegas’ Blue Man Group and Santa Ana’s police department are among the clients of Hiperwall, a UCI-hatched software system that makes multiple TV screens behave like one giant display. The jumbo video wall technology was invented by Stephen Jenks, formerly an assistant professor of electrical engineering & computer science at UCI, and alumnus Sung-Jin Kim. Hiperwall has also been used by foreign intelligence agencies, Applied Innovation’s Cove auditorium and a Belgium airport, where incoming international passengers can wave at infrared images of themselves on a 48-foot-long video display. While visually entertaining, the system serves a more practical purpose as well: Its heat-sensing cameras help officials detect passengers with fevers so they can be pulled aside for possible quarantine.
In Good Company
Some alumni startups are born and nurtured on campus. But several intriguing Anteater-affiliated businesses launched after graduation:
- Deep Space Industries, which hopes to mine asteroids with rocketship robots, was co-founded by Jim Luebke ’99, an aerospace engineering and history major.
- Oru Kayak, co-founded by social sciences alumnus Ardy Sobhani ’04, makes foldable kayaks.
- Heliotrope Technologies, a startup specializing in “smart” glass windows that help control indoor temperatures, was co-founded by chemical engineering alumnus Jason Holt ’97.
- JustFoodForDogs, which makes upscale canine meals, employs veterinarian Oscar Chavez, FEMBA ’12 as its chief medical officer.
- Tea Drops, a company that sells bagless tea made from pressed leaves that dissolve in your cup, was founded by Sashee Chandran ’07, an economics major.
- Fontainebleau Miami Beach, South Florida’s landmark hotel, opened in 1954, but its 2005 remodel was spearheaded by CEO Glenn Schaeffer ’74, M.A. ’75, English.
Originally published in the Winter 2018 issue of UCI Magazine.