From life-saving biotechnology to P.T. Barnum promotions, Alabama inventors are in the thick of the game. Meet a few of Alabama’s Edisons and their handiwork — genetic diagnosis at the doctors’ office, artificial snow, programmable magnets...
In his Cedar Ridge lab near Huntsville, inventor Larry Fullerton has developed ways to program magnets to perform specific functions — to be picky about what they attract — a quality that’s useful in everything from toys to prosthetics to safety devices.
Photo by David Higginbotham
Virtually everything we consider essential to daily life started with an idea. There’s a fine line between crazy and ingenious, yet some of the craziest inventions turned into products that make our life a little easier, safer, healthier or simply more enjoyable.
We love to invent; we love to watch people invent. Channel surf and find “American Inventors,” “Kitchen Inventors,” “Everyday Edisons” and “Shark Tank,” where wannabe inventors pitch their product concepts. And wake up to the “Today Show” with its new inventors segment.
Alabamians are busy discovering the next best thing since sliced bread — independently and at our research universities. In both cases, these innovations are working their way into the marketplace, turning bright ideas into promising start-ups and thriving, full-fledged companies.
Correlated Magnetics Research
In 2008, making his grandchildren an action figure that could assemble itself was the seed for Huntsville inventor Larry Fullerton’s idea for programmable magnets.
That seemingly crazy idea has grown into Correlated Magnetics Research, which develops and patents precisely engineered magnetic fields to meet application-specific requirements.
Recalling his toy idea, “I thought magnets could attach, but this wouldn’t work because an arm might attach to the neck, arms to hips and so forth, unless they were encoded in some way… I had some very good ideas to test for encoding (or programming permanent magnets) and it worked!”
Among Correlated Magnetics Research’s patents for numerous applications are electrical connectors, couplings, valves, motors, generators, robotics and cushioning devices. The company also has patents for using the technology in toys, child safety devices, prosthetics, sports equipment and many other products.
“The technology can be used in so many different ways and is still relatively new, so we are continuously inventing and patenting those inventions.”
As founder and CEO, Fullerton oversees 19 full-time employees and expects CMR to grow as the technology moves into mainstream design and production. Along with its Huntsville and New Hope, Ala. locations, CMR is also in Austin, Texas; Minneapolis, Minn., and San Jose, Calif.
Fullerton’s father was an Air Force officer and among the first to go through radar school, an exciting new technology in the 1950s. Fullerton quizzed him constantly, which led to an interest in electronics. Isaac Asimov’s “Intelligent Man’s Guide to Science” and Ayn Rand’s “Atlas Shrugged” were other sources of early inspiration.
“I really believe that creating is the most important thing a person can do, that inventing is a core part of the American experience. I make it my business to know how everything works, and that’s a great asset when I need to figure out how to make a new idea come to life.”
One of the greatest challenges growers face is protecting their plants from the cold. University of Alabama biological sciences professor David Francko has developed a spray-on formula that improves the plant’s freeze tolerance up to 9.4 degrees Fahrenheit, which Francko says is like “moving your landscape about 200 miles further south.” It can protect plants when the temperature falls as low as 24 degrees.
The patent-pending, food-grade formula not only protects against frost, but also keeps the ice crystals from damaging the plant’s cells. It has been on the market since 2009 under the name FreezePruf and is manufactured by Liquid Fence, a Pennsylvania-based company manufacturing and distributing eco-safe plant products. In January 2014, the name will change to FrostProtect to emphasize its protection capabilities.
“It becomes effective almost immediately and gets into the plant tissues, offering both acute and long-term protection,” Francko explains.
FreezPruf works particularly well on grapes. Francko heard from vineyard owners in Virginia who sprayed it on their grapes during a freeze and were able to save them. Francko wants to move beyond the current online sales and get his product into garden centers and big box stores, such as Home Depot.
At the University of Alabama in Huntsville, chemical engineering professor Krishnan Chittur has developed a device that can detect and identify any known pathogen within one hour of obtaining a blood sample. Chittur is a co-founder of GeneCapture, the company launched to commercialize the technology patented by Chittur and three other scientists at UAH.
Current infection detection can be costly, time-consuming and unreliable. “Like trying to find a needle in a haystack,” Chittur says. And it can take about 72 hours, which can be life-threatening, since organs start shutting down within 48 hours. With a quick diagnosis, a decision on the treatment can be made without delay.
The portable device, which Chittur expects will cost less than most lab equipment, is simple to operate and will likely be battery powered. It can be used in hospitals, physician’s offices and other health care facilities, including veterinary medicine.
GeneCapture is a resident company at Huntsville’s HudsonAlpha Institute, where it is in the design phase. Once the prototype is perfected, more testing is needed, as well as FDA clearance. Chittur would like to see the device evolve into similar testing for identifying genes, which he says is currently a difficult process.
Today, the only way to deliver medication to the eyes is with drops or ointments, which Auburn University chemical engineer Mark Byrne says are inefficient,with less than 7 percent of the medication absorbed by the eye. Byrne led a team of chemical and biomedical engineers at Auburn University to develop a new method of ocular drug delivery by wearing contact lenses.
The therapeutic contact lenses have been shown to work about 100 times better than the conventional eye drop therapy, Byrne says. The lenses deliver a slow, controlled release of medication and can be used with contact lenses that have vision correction properties or those that provide no vision change. Because the drug is delivered more efficiently, less of it is needed, thus reducing side effects.
The older population makes up a large portion of those who suffer from eye disease. Byrne says the argument that older patients cannot tolerate contact lenses is unfounded since today’s contact lenses are more soft and comfortable.
Licensed through Auburn University under the company name OcuMedic, the therapeutic contact lenses won the grand prize at the 2007 Launchpad competition.
Byrne, who is looking for funding, sees potential to help a large number of people and many ocular therapies.
Helping others bring their ideas to life is what Rob Adams’ MindGear Labs is all about. The Huntsville lab is open to anyone with an idea who wants to cultivate it. Brainstorm, work on projects, take classes, attend seminars, do research or just tinker. You supply the imagination. MindGear helps it take form.
A longtime aerospace engineer, Adams was working at the NASA headquarters in Washington, D.C. three years ago when he visited a Fab Lab (fabrication laboratory), which began with a class at MIT called “How to Make (Almost) Anything.”
Adams brought the concept to Huntsville and opened MindGear, where you can indeed make almost anything. Build an app, a robotic hand or an animatronic figure. Experiment with optics and light, 3D printing, cartography or laser cutting. MindGear also provides prototype and short production run services. Lab assistants demonstrate advanced technologies and develop their own ideas.
But Adams’ greatest satisfaction is a 13-year-old MindGear devotee who designed a canine cabana, with hammock, and has applied for a patent. “The product addresses a real need — to keep dogs cool in the summer. Not only did this product build his confidence but will probably build his bank account,” says Adams.
MindGear also is a fertile environment for Adams, who possesses a curious mind and several advanced degrees. “There’s freedom that comes with building something I can’t get anywhere else. I come here and create anything I want.”
Global Special Effects
Francisco Guerra was working as a magician in 1990 when he needed the illusion of snow for his performance. Finding nothing suitable on the market, he invented his own snow-making machine, and his company SnowMasters Special Effect was launched. The name was later changed to Global Special Effects to reflect its worldwide expansion.
Based in Lexington in Lauderdale County, Global Special Effects manufactures visual effects products and accessories. Guerra’s visual special effects machines also make foam, fog, bubbles and scent. Global Special Effects serves the filmmaking, television, theme park, nightclub, music video and entertainment industries.
Guerra has developed many inventions and businesses since his evaporative faux snow machine, which operate under the parent company Guerra Holdings. He invented Eco-Scent, a device that replicates nearly any scent. His Drink Safe coasters, featured as one of Time magazine’s 2002 Coolest Inventions, are used in bars and nightclubs to determine if drinks have been spiked with date-rape drugs. He also invented cloud-like flying logos called Flogos.
His success has led to appearances on the “Oprah Winfrey Show,” “20/20” and “60 Minutes” and major awards. To help aspiring inventors, he created License My Product to advise on patents, manufacturing and distribution.
Yet he’s most proud of the snow machine, which remains his most lucrative endeavor. “It’s amazing to see people light up when they see the snow,” says the Cuban-born Guerra. “It brings back so many memories for them.”
Guerra says the greatest challenge he faced is to treat his inventions as a business, not just a hobby. Not surprising when your first invention is something as enchanting as fake snow.
Ideas often come at unlikely moments. For Birmingham inventor Martin Kueckelhan, the idea for his Ham Toner came while using an auger to drill holes in the ground. The Ham Toner mimics the Nordic hamstring curl, but instead of a partner holding your feet while you move up and down in a kneeling position, you kneel on a pad that is staked into the ground.
The Ham Toner is made of solid steel, with a power-coat finish, and uses Olympus knee and roller pads. “It’s built like a farm implement and will last a lifetime, but weighs only 22 pounds,” Kueckelhan explains. “It will make you jump faster and run farther, while preventing ACL and hamstring injuries.”
A Florida machine shop has manufactured 25 Ham Toners, which Kueckelhan has distributed to several Alabama high school and college athletic departments. The response has been favorable. Coaches at Hoover and Mountain Brook high schools and Stillman College’s track coach have reported success with the Ham Toner. So has Leeds High School football coach Keith Etheredge, who provided Kueckelhan with a testimonial about the effectiveness and ease of the Ham Toner.
“Simple to use; difficult to master,” notes Kueckelhan, whose goal is to expand production, which he’d like to do in Alabama.
Jessica Armstrong is a freelance writer for Business Alabama. She lives in Auburn.