(Adds NSF comment)

Just as computers "that used to be the size of [rooms] can now do a lot of operations faster and cheaper in small components, the same applies to standard chemical and biological processes," says Bernardo Cordovez, founder of Optofluidics, a startup based at the University Science Center that's developing what he calls a "lab on a chip, in a commercially-deployable format that you don't have to be a Ph.D. to use."


Applications? "For blood tests, you can go to CVS and buy a lancet that looks like a pen. Touch your finger, a drop of blood comes out." A user touches Optofluidics' chip to the blood then sticks it "into a reader device. Within an hour you get a reading, a diagnosis, many diagnoses."

DARPA, the US Department of Defense agency that funded development of the Internet, is supporting Optofluidics' work as applied to the traumatic brain injuries soldiers have suffered in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. "When you get bumped in the head, certain proteins" form in response to potential brain injuries, notes co-ceo Rob Hart. Finding those proteins gives "a red light/green light diagnosis that can determine if a soldier can stay on the field." Civilian applications include "sports injuries, car injuries, first responders."    

The company is also developing chemical replacements for small and delicate mechanical instruments. "We have to invent new ways to maniuplate (tiny) objects," Cordovez says. "And we have invented a new way to manipulate objects that uses light." Like a Star Trek "tractor beam," he says, light waves exert pressure on a molecular scale, "and we can use this to trap very small particles."
Wow. "Wow is right. We're the only ones using this technology to trap single molecules," Hart told me. Optofluidics is "thousands of times better than anyone else," using high-intensity beams developed, not through optic lenses, but using what Hart calls "chip-based methods" that guide the light through "nano-scale strutures. Little wires. Very much like elecronics, but instead of wires for electrons, we use very small fibers for light."
That's Optofluidics' focus, Cordovez says: engineering electronics-style micromanufacturing processes to work with light instead of electric power: "The best of both worlds." Since scientific instruments aren't subject to FDA approval, "we expect to commericalize (lab devices) in a much quicker time frame. The chips we can make in house. For the instruments, we are talking to manufacturers.... Mass spectrometers cost hundreds of thousands of dollars, if you get a nice one. We're trying to reduce the current investment."

"Also, you can throw these things away," they're that small, said Hart. "Which in the medical field is a huge advantage."

The National Science Foundation has also backed Optofluidics' work.NEW: "We've invested about $650,000 into the team through the Fedearl Small Business Innovation Research Program," Ben Schrag PhD, program director for NSF, told me. Optofluidics is one of a few dozen companies, of 3,000 applicants, that his NSF program fund at this level.
"Robert and Bernardo are fantastic. They're world-class experts, but they're also becoming really good entrepreneurs. They understand the market. They're making the product more ready for market. They have a prototype they can engage with their users," Schrag added.
Cordovez' mentor, Prof. David Erikson at Cornell, "is a very solid expert who's been able to connect them to many folks in the academic community. And they have a technology here that is really enabling folks to manipulate things at the nanometer scale, which is the Holy Grail. These guys have gone to particles a thousand times smaller" than competing "optical tweezers" and other "cutting edge" technologies have been able to do. "Roberto is a biomedial engineer. Bernardo is a phsyicist and engineer." An unsual, powerful combinations. 
Last week the company was recognized as local Life Sciences Startup Company of the Year by the Greater Philadelphia Alliance for Capital and Technologies. Cordovez moved the company here from Cornell last year. Hart, a Philadelphia native, got his PhD in biomedical engineering at Drexel and his post-doc work at Penn.