March 19, 2009

Smart Skin Finalist in $125K Contest

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A carbon-nanotube prosthetic-skin project may earn a university spin-off company $125,000 worth of venture capital and professional services. Smart Skin, a University of New Brunswick (UNB), Canada-based start-up company, is one of six finalists in the New Brunswick Innovation Foundation's Breakthru business plan competition, a province-wide competition to pinpoint the region's most promising entrepreneurs.

According to the New Brunswickan newspaper, Kumaran Thillainadarajah, a fourth-year undergraduate student in computer engineering, heads the company. He, along with three other students, are working to develop a skin for prosthetic limbs that is based on the unique properties of carbon nanotubes.

"About 100,000 of these-an entire forest of nanotubes-would fit onto the head of a needle," Thillainadarajah told the New Brunswickan. "They are a hundred times stronger than steel, and at the same time, they are flexible and more importantly, pressure-sensitive."

The Smart Skin project is based on research Thillainadarajah did as a summer student for Felipe Chibante, PhD, the Richard J. Currie chair in nanotechnology in the faculty of engineering at UNB. During that summer, Chibante's lab received a contract from UNB's Institute of Biomedical Engineering (IBME), which includes advanced research facilities for prosthetics.

"They wanted us to make a new skin for their arm," Chibante told the New Brunswickan. "They were interested in using the strength properties of carbon nanotubes to make a more durable glove for their robotic arm. But there's more potential for this technology, like making the glove pressure-sensitive."

Chibante said that he's mentoring Smart Skin in develop a prototype that the contest judges and investors can see.

"They say a picture is worth a thousand words," Chibante said, "But a prototype is worth a million dollars. I think judges want an ABCDE business plan and E is the big dollar sign.... It's something that will revolutionize the prosthetics industry. Once people are given the choice between touch and non-touch, everyone will choose touch."

Smart Skin will enter the competition's final round on March 25. The test will include a 15-minute presentation to a selection committee, plus a 15-minute question and answer period. The grand prize winner will receive $100,000 in equity investment, plus $25,000 worth of professional services from the law firm Cox & Palmer and the accounting giant PricewaterhouseCoopers. The second place winner and the best start-up by an entrepreneur under 35 years old will each receive $50,000 in capital and $10,000 in services.

In December 2008, Smart Skin was the runner up in another UNB business-plan competition.

"The second-place finish was an eye-opener," Thillainadarajah said. "I realized I had to re-think things. So I came back this semester and hit refresh.... I realized that starting a company was about finding the right team. It was my baby, but I had to give up control and bring in help."

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