Meet three young entrepreneurs erupting with fresh ideas, energy and enthusiasm.
Professor Yuping Bao (left), heads the research team in the department of chemical engineering at the University of Alabama that developed the nanotechnology behind MagnnPro, the company headed by grad student and CEO Thomas Macher (right).
Photo by Robert Sutton
Thomas Macher’s MagnnPro enables clearer, risk-reduced MRI scans
When a patient undergoes an MRI scan, doctors must be able to read the resulting images clearly to identify any abnormal conditions. To aid in the process, doctors use chemical contrast agents to increase the visibility of target body structures. In the past, these contrast agents were gadolinium-based solutions. But the Gd-based agents began causing their own health problems, and researchers began searching for alternative MRI contrast solutions.
This January, Magnetic Nanomaterial Products, or MagnnPro LLC, formed in Tuscaloosa with the goal of developing a safer substitute for existing contrast agents, with 24-year-old University of Alabama graduate student Thomas Macher as CEO.
“As part of my master’s degree, I was able to join Dr. Yuping Bao’s research team in the department of chemical engineering at the University of Alabama,” says Macher.
In addition to the department’s prominence in research and facilities, Macher sought assistance from the Alabama Institute for Manufacturing Excellence. “They offered guidance in the manufacturing process and professional business training to our team in the start-up phase of the company,” he says. “This institute has been invaluable to us in providing a level of expertise that would take years to attain without their help.”
Macher credits Bao and the chemical engineering research team for facilitating the basis of the new company’s research. “Our research in nanotechnology materials led to the products and processes manufactured by MagnnPro LLC.” The research and development company now uses cutting-edge nanomanufacturing technology to develop MRI contrast products that don’t contain gadolinium.
“The use of Gd-based contrast agents poses health risks to patients with renal and kidney diseases,” says Macher, citing research that says as many as 800,000 Americans experience adverse effects each year. In 2007, the Food & Drug Administration issued a product warning linking the use of Gd and nephrogenic systemic fibrosis. In 2009, the World Health Organization placed restrictions on the use of five contrast agents administered in the U.S. The restrictions were established in response to harmful effects observed after the Gd agents were administered to patients with severe kidney problems, patients having undergone a liver transplant and newborn infants.
Older contrast products also run the risk of spreading within the patient’s body. “Gd-based contrast agents are difficult to retain at the target location,” says Macher.
“Due to the small size of the molecular Gd-complex, the compound can easily escape from the bloodstream and enter the extracellular space.” To compensate for this, patients must receive multiple doses to achieve an accurate resolution — added doses in the body increase the risk of health complications.
To avoid the dangers associated with Gd, MagnnPro has developed the first iron oxide nanomaterial-based MRI T1 contrast agent. “Our product is different from other contrast agents currently on the market,” says Macher. “It offers a new way of using iron oxide as an MRI contrast agent. This new process will meet the needs of patients with special conditions and improve imaging efficacy and safety.”
The iron oxide nanoparticles used in MagnnPro’s technology are approved by the FDA, as nanoparticles are already in use among T2 agents for liver and spleen imaging. “The use of iron is safer and more stable,” says Macher. “These iron oxide nanoparticle-based contrast agents are generally accepted to be safe and can be reabsorbed through normal iron metabolic pathways.”
Macher explains that unlike gadolinium, iron is found naturally in the blood, so there is no toxin introduced into the body. The nanoparticles are then easily removed by the kidney.
Although they currently operate without outside investors, MagnnPro has received a government grant from the National Science Foundation. They anticipate a healthy revenue stream when royalties for the licensed products become available. They also will sell their nanomaterial to large pharmaceutical companies.
Soon, MagnnPro intends to license its contrast agent technology, as well as similar products. “Our R&D products are not limited to the contrast agent market,” says Macher, “but also have the potential to enter other fields that utilize the nanotechnology materials we produce.” The R&D company hopes to make its innovative products available for medical use within the next five years.
Heath Hendrix’s Zambooki links homeowners and service providers
and grades the work
After Tuscaloosa was devastated by tornadoes in April 2011, the town was faced with the overwhelming task of removing vast amounts of debris. Although the relief efforts around the city and state helped clear the wreckage, some paid contractors skipped town without finishing the job.
“Many homeowners were scammed by bad contractors who took the money and ran,” says Heath Hendrix, co-founder of Zambooki LLC. “After seeing that, we decided to help homeowners find good contractors that can be trusted and do the job.”
That summer, Hendrix and co-founder Jacob Jones began developing Zambooki.com. The site offers homeowners access to estimates for whatever job they have. “It’s similar to a dating site,” says Hendrix. “Homeowners browse through contractors and find the one best suited to what they need.”
The first version of the site launched in August of 2011. It featured Zambooki’s most basic features and introduced the founders’ concept of the online homeowner-to-contractor forum. The latest version debuted this year following an investment partnership with Birmingham Angel Network and NuVault Financial.
Operating as a Pinterest-style site, Zambooki allows homeowners to post an image of the work that needs to be done in a special gallery. Contractors may view these images and give an estimate of how much it would cost for them to do the job. The estimates go into a blind bid so that contractors cannot undercut each other.
Anyone can sign up as a contractor, from college students cutting lawns to highly experienced professionals. However, profile ratings are determined by the amount of information each contractor makes available. They are also subject to customer reviews. Receiving several bad reviews can bar a contractor from the site. “That’s all in an effort to protect homeowners,” says Hendrix. “It’s about accountability and quality assurance.”
So far, Hendrix has been pleased with the contractors’ activity on Zambooki. “We’ve seen contractors respond to posts in under a minute,” he says. “I’ve even had a contractor immediately reply to a storm damage post and do the job for free.”
The contractor services found on the site span more than 40 industries, including lawn care, roofing and electrical. While there is always a demand for home repair and structural work, Hendrix has noticed seasonal trends develop. “Now that it’s warm, we’ll see a lot of painting and landscaping jobs,” he says. “Of course, every time a storm hits, there will be a spike in debris removal posts.” Reflecting the site’s origins, Zambooki’s disaster relief category sees high traffic year round.
Before launching Zambooki, Hendrix worked in ad sales. With more than seven years of sales experience, he soon saw the site’s potential for ad revenue. “We’ve invented ‘point of estimate’ advertising, which is functional advertising as close to the point of sales as possible,” he says. “Point of estimate advertising allows companies to get their message to exactly the right target as they are placing an estimate on a project, allowing for the brand to inject into the flow of business.” Ads are visible on a contractor’s login page, allowing them to reach contractors whenever they would be most relevant.
To promote his business in its early stages, Hendrix created an eccentric mascot called Zambooki Man. “I would paint myself red or wear a costume and go to Alabama games,” he says. “It was definitely an attention grabber. You wouldn’t forget it.”
The mascot worked like a charm, as Zambooki Man earned the website viral attention. Photos of the red-clad upstarter circulated around social media after each game.
Last year, Hendrix was honored to have Zambooki be the first startup business inducted into The Edge, a Tuscaloosa-based work center and incubator. From their new workspace, the team, all of whom are in their 30s, aim to expand their market share while maintaining their high standard of accountability.
For more information visit zambooki.com.
Evan Metrock’s iExit app steers drivers to best exits
Any number of needs can arise while on the road. Trucks need to refuel, day-trippers need to eat, and sooner or later, everyone needs a rest stop. Birmingham-based software company Metrocket has developed a mobile application to help drivers pick the best exit.
Founded by Evan Metrock in 2009, Metrocket originally developed software for companies that needed assistance adapting to mobile devices. Now the company concentrates exclusively on its in-demand mobile application, iExit. The app works with an interstate-bound traveler’s mobile device to determine the user’s location and displays a list of gas stations, restaurants, hotels and other facilities available at upcoming exits.
Metrock was working at Career Builder in 2008 when Apple Inc. announced the iTunes App Store. A 2007 graduate of the Georgia Institute of Technology, Metrock knew that if he ever ventured into his own business, it would be Web-related. “The introduction of smartphones and the App Store was good timing,” he says. “The mobility of a smartphone can allow for so many things that can’t be done with a website. There is no shortage of opportunities here.”
The software engineer began brainstorming, hoping to find a concept with potential. After several ideas that didn’t seem to pique his interest, Metrock hit the road. “I was taking a lot of road trips,” he says. “It occurred to me that there could be a smartphone app to help me find what I needed on the road.” After that realization, a plan for the mobile travel guide began to take shape.
In the early day of the app’s development, 26-year-old Metrock knew that he and his team would be able to manage the software aspect. Collecting data, however, would be an enormous task, demanding countless hours of research.
“When the idea hit me, I tried a Google search for interstate exit data,” says Metrock. “The first result I saw was a site called AllStays.com.” AllStays LLC provides web-based travel information, detailing what services are offered at each exit along the interstate. “That was exactly what we needed.”
After finding the ideal data source, Metrock approached AllStays with the iExit concept. The idea took hold, and the two companies established a partnership for almost two years. When Metrocket decided to restructure, they received a lifetime license to AllStays’ old data in exchange for offering development time for the company.
Metrock began working with developers to build Web crawlers that search the Internet for interstate exit data. “That has become one of the biggest components of the business,” he says. “It allows us to make new apps and add new options.”
iExit debuted on Apple’s App Store in January 2010. Boosted by reviews in USA Today and The New York Times, iExit recently reached a landmark 300,000 apps sold on the IOS platform. Metrocket’s primary revenue comes from their online app sales. They also offer opportunities for businesses to buy sponsored positions at each exit. Metrocket launched without outside investment funding. “This is a 100 percent bootstrap company,” says Metrock.
In February 2011, Metrock moved the operation to Innovation Depot in Birmingham. “When I found out about Innovation Depot, I was beyond impressed,” says Metrock. “It has been amazing for the growth of my business.
Metrocket’s downtown office houses a team of three part-time developers and a social media expert. The team is small, but they have streamlined their business model to operate as efficiently as possible.
Metrocket is now entirely focused on the iExit app. “The largest portion of our efforts is improving the database,” says Metrock. “We want to make sure everything is as accurate as possible.” This entails research to ensure exact locations, what amenities are offered at each stop, and how to book rooms at nearby hotels.
Soon, Metrock hopes to integrate iExit functions into a car’s onboard features. “We’re looking at the smart infotainment devices that are becoming more common in everyone’s cars,” says Metrock. “The mobile app could adapt naturally from smart phones to this new platform. That’s the future of our technology.”
For more information visit iexitapp.com.