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University started companies help power region's economy

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Sunday, Feb. 26, 2012

Marlin Mickle is no beginner when it comes to forming companies based on his University of Pittsburgh research.

Mickle, 75, an engineering faculty member since 1962, has seen 10 companies spin-out of his lab. His most recent endeavor, Ortho-Tag, Inc., was one of two from Pitt in 2011.

The idea for Ortho-Tag came from an orthopedic surgeon in New Jersey who wanted to put tiny tags on replacement joints, Mickle said. Currently, if a doctor or hospital needs information about a joint or if a joint is recalled, they consult paper files.

By implanting an Ortho-Tag, which contains a small computer chip, a doctor could wave a wand over the joint to read information on the chip.

Mickle said he's working on a pH sensor that could be put in the tag to alert doctors of an infection.

At slightly less than a foot tall, Romibo, a furry gumdrop-shaped robot, packs a big personality and the potential to help children with physical or emotional disabilities.

With big, expressive eyes and two antennae lit by fiber optics, Romibo can motor across the floor, bounce up and down and lean forward and backward. His eyes open and close, and he makes sounds to let you know whether he's happy or sad. He can sense if you pet him or yell at him and react accordingly.

Aubrey Shick, a design researcher at Carnegie Mellon University, invented Romibo as a final semester project for her Making Things Interactive class as a graduate student last year. She won support for her fuzzy robot from the school's Quality of Life Technology Center and science foundations and started her own company: Origami Robotics.

University-inspired research that leads to spin-off companies such as Shick's serves as a powerful economic generator for the region, economists say.

"The reason why university spin-offs are important is because they are the kinds of businesses that disproportionately are likely to be growing and ... able to create products and services that can sell to people outside the region," said Harold D. Miller, president of Downtown-based Future Strategies LLC.

Shick designed Romibo to be therapeutic for children with disabilities or special needs. For example, Romibo could be programmed so that when a child moves his arm in certain ways, Romibo moves in different directions.

Shick said Romibo's final price isn't set, but she's confident it will be less than $350.

Carnegie Mellon yields more start-up companies per research dollar than any university except the University of Utah, said Bob Wooldridge, director of CMU's Center for Technology Transfer. Five years out, 75 percent of university spin-offs remain located near the university, he said.

Miller said CMU and the University of Pittsburgh are offering more entrepreneurship training for students, awarding financial support and being more generous in signing deals to create spin-offs.

"By keeping the businesses here, it's not only the jobs you create by having the workers and the manufacturing, but some of the folks who work for that (spin-off) firm might then turn around and start their own firm," Miller said.

Shick, 28, who grew up in Mt. Pleasant, said she hopes to make Romibo entirely a product of Western Pennsylvania, from the die-cut plastic pieces and electronic parts to the volunteer labor building the robots from kits.

"Why not allow the community to benefit from the fact that they're manufactured in Pittsburgh?" Shick said. "Everybody says, 'Oh you could do it so much more cheaply in China.' ... But it's a robot from Pittsburgh!"

Shick said Romibo might get a "made in Pittsburgh" stamp. She anticipates the first version of the robot will be ready mid-year.

Romibo's brain is an arduino, an open-source electronics platform that will allow tech-savvy users to change or add to Romibo's emotions and behaviors fairly easily.

"Our objective is to make the robot so simple that a child and a parent could put it together," Shick said. "That way we're not off manufacturing in a factory somewhere; we're teaching local people about technology, engineering, robotics and therapy by allowing them to build these robots."

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