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Pa. technology fund links universities, industry to solve innovation problems

| Saturday, Dec. 27, 2014, 11:27 p.m.
Bombardier engineers Romuald Ponte (left) and Saket Agarwal stand next to one of their people movers at the company's offices in West Mifflin, Tuesday, Dec. 16, 2014.
Andrew Russell | Trib Total Media
Bombardier engineers Romuald Ponte (left) and Saket Agarwal stand next to one of their people movers at the company's offices in West Mifflin, Tuesday, Dec. 16, 2014.
Bombardier sensors will allow the company's people movers to operate with electronic guidance rather than mechanical guidance systems at the company's offices in West Mifflin, Tuesday, Dec. 16, 2014.
Andrew Russell | Trib Total Media
Bombardier sensors will allow the company's people movers to operate with electronic guidance rather than mechanical guidance systems at the company's offices in West Mifflin, Tuesday, Dec. 16, 2014.

Satish Mohapatra runs a company near Allentown that helps confectioners make chocolate and helps automakers test weather-resistance.

As CEO of Dynalene, his company's goal is to make fluids that can help manufacturers manage the amount of heat their machinery generates.

Like many companies, he often turns to his research and development team to make products, or to improve old ones.

“We have a good R&D program — chemists and engineers full-time working on new process in heat transfer,” he said.

But in 2012, wanting to make a cooling system that would continuously wick water before it could freeze and stop moving parts, he decided to go academic. He applied for a grant from the state-funded Pennsylvania Infrastructure Technology Alliance, or PITA.

Started in 1998 with $2.5 million , and boasting a self-reported $309 million in economic benefit to Pennsylvania through 2011, PITA gives small grants to university-industry teams to fund projects in fields that relate to Pennsylvania's infrastructure growth and technological development.

Run through Carnegie Mellon University and Lehigh University, the program gave $1.75 million in grants in 2014. The class of 2015 will be announced in January.

“It's a very good initiative,” said Sheri Collins, executive director of the Pennsylvania Technology Investment Office, which oversees the program. “It speaks to the challenges and opportunities that the manufacturing industry has.”

Each year, PITA's co-directors must lobby state legislators for funding, said Burak Ozdoganlar, CMU mechanical engineering professor and co-director of PITA. In 2014, even though they asked for more, he said, the state split $1.75 million between the two schools, which field applications from academic scientists and industry partners.

The collaborating company matches the grants, which top out at $62,000 per project by at least a two-to-one margin. Their contribution arrives mainly in cash, equipment and time spent by employees. The grants mostly pay for graduate students' salaries for the time they work on the project — about one year.

For the most part, grants stay within CMU and Lehigh, but Ozdoganlar said proposals are vetted equally. Seventeen universities have participated.

The company gets access to faculty expertise, students and equipment, said Ozdoganlar; university and students get access to real-life technology and engineering problems.

“It's a really good blend of experiences and market-driven challenges,” he said. “The program is really about creating technology for the future and elevating the companies of Pennsylvania.”

Though projects have addressed everything from new or improved devices for detecting bridge weaknesses to improving public transportation to fracking waste cleanup, the one-year time frame for grants is short, so most of what's learned in the collaborations goes toward applications for larger grants, rather than establishment of intellectual property, Ozdoganlar said.

Bombardier, a transportation company with offices in West Mifflin, has used a PITA grant to develop autonomous people mover machines, similar to the terminal-to-terminal shuttles at Pittsburgh International Airport.

Bombardier Vice President of Systems Engineering Romuald Ponte said the company first started working with PITA to improve people mover systems in 2010.

“We clearly need to step up innovation all the time. We need to work with the best,” said Ponte.

Starting in March 2013, Mohapatra has hosted three Lehigh University graduate students, working on the water-wicking problem. As he describes it: In systems that require constant cooling, a non-water-based coolant often is used. But, the cooling system often condenses water from the atmosphere, and it freezes, sometimes locking valves and other machine parts in place.

Unchecked, the ice build-up could force the shutdown of a cooling system. More often, he said, people have to work to get rid of the ice.

His product would be an add-on component to the cooling system that would pull condensed, invasive water out of the coolant continuously, without having to shut down the system. He's hoping to build the product next year. The water project is slated to end in June.

He has started a second project on how to use dry salts, which turn to liquid at high temperatures, as a stable heat-transfer agent in renewable energy processes.

Because it is legislatively allocated, the amount of money given to PITA varies from year to year.

In 2007, the program had about $6 million, commensurate with a strong state economy, Ozdoganlar said. In 2011, the program had $785,000 to work with, according to a yearly progress report submitted in January 2014 by CMU and Lehigh to the state Department of Community and Economic Development. In 2012, because of a state budget crunch, there was no program.

In 2011, Lehigh University granted 13 projects, and CMU granted 11. One went to an outside school, Widener University in Chester.

The 2011 grants led to nearly $6 million for continued research. The $309 million in economic benefit to the state is what companies and researchers report to PITA administrators, Ozdoganlar said.

Mohapatra wants to continue his work with PITA.

“It's not just the instruments, the laboratory resources, but the people,” he said. “The more people you have in a project, you get more ideas. Definitely, it works well, rather than us working alone as a company.”

Megha Satyanarayana is a Trib Total Media staff writer. Reach her at 412-320-7991 or megha@tribweb.com.

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