At the Center for Advanced Design and Manufacturing of Integrated Microfluidics (CADMIM), corporate engagement is a matter of longstanding collaborations built over time. CADMIM, co-directed by Professor Abraham Lee, chair of the UCI Biomedical Engineering Department, and Professor of Bioengineering Ian Papautsky at the University of Illinois at Chicago (UIC), develops next-generation lab-on-a-chip devices and diagnostic tools with applications in agriculture, healthcare and pharmaceuticals.
One of 76 National Science Foundation (NSF) Industry/University Cooperative Research Centers (I/UCRC) in the United States, CADMIM uniquely focuses on developing advanced microfluidics technologies for industrially relevant applications. Consortium members include Beckman Coulter, KWS SAAT SE, DuPont Pioneer, Genentech, Inc., GlaxoSmithKline, ALine, Inc., ESI Group, the Genomics Institute of the Novartis Research Foundation, and VTT Technical Research Center of Finland, Ltd. CADMIM also partners with government laboratories, including Los Alamos National Laboratory.
How CADMIM fosters collaboration
A key part of CADMIM’s success is focusing on fundamental research of interest to all parties – including companies that are sometimes marketplace competitors. According to Lee, industry members define center research priorities according to their commercial applications. All research is open access to center members, and project parameters are well-defined in advance. Collaborating companies can choose promising results as well as apply for joint grants together with center’s faculty.
“Through the center, we want to pursue projects based on the broad, pre-competitive needs of the member companies,” said Lee. “They could then take the projects to the next level through follow-on sponsored and targeted research.”
A benefit of CADMIM participation is that in addition to industry-relevant, cutting-edge lab-on-a-chip technology, center members also have access to students who are already trained in high-demand skills. According to Gisela Lin, Ph.D., CADMIM deputy director, over the years companies have hired CADMIM students and alumni as interns and permanent employees with specialized skills that they developed through the program. In fact, Los Alamos National Laboratory initially joined the consortium to recruit center students and post-docs with knowledge and experience in microfluidics.
Case study: Major progress on microfluidics for DuPont Pioneer
CADMIM also acts as a portal for corporations to form lasting relationships with universities. For the past 10 years, DuPont Pioneer, a global agricultural company that applies biotechnology in its research and development programs, has built a collaborative research partnership with UCI. According to Yue Yun, Ph.D., the lead scientist for the CADMIM and UCI microfluidic collaborations at DuPont Pioneer, rapid changes in agricultural product and services markets around the world are driving a need to adopt new technologies that will shorten the product development cycle. For example, fluctuating weather patterns, diverse soil conditions and variable disease susceptibility affect the type of crops that farmers can grow—and their yield.
“It is a priority to develop new crop varieties faster, cheaper and achieve higher quality results,” said Yun.
Yun’s DuPont Pioneer laboratory facility is located among the rolling cornfields of Johnston, Iowa, just outside of Des Moines, and is the company’s global headquarters for seed business. DuPont Pioneer maintains nine international genotyping labs around the world situated on five continents.
“We are a [crop] breeding company and are processing millions of samples each year,” Yun said.
According to Yun, each crop breeding line has to be suitably matched to the designated growing location. Even in Iowa, where important crops like corn have been grown for the past 100 years, the weather and other environmental factors are now changing, driving the need to develop new varieties that can adapt and thrive in these changing conditions.
Conducting genotypic selection for suitable traits from a larger breeding population leads to more robust results. To accelerate the breeding cycle, DuPont Pioneer typically runs genotypic selection concurrently with planting. However, doing this using conventional industrial assay platform is costly, so Yun’s group started exploring the potential of microfluidics.
Microfluidic platforms have been extensively used for human and animal research, but applying this technology to plant genetics and crop plant research and development is a comparatively recent change.
In addition to UCI, DuPont Pioneer is also collaborating with the laboratory of Biomedical Engineering Professor Jeff Wang, Ph.D., at Johns Hopkins University to build a device that performs genotyping of crops based on single cell analysis. According to Yun, genotyping with microfluidics can be done at much higher throughput and provides higher quality outcomes compared to standard industrial assay platform. Using microfluidics will be much cheaper in operating costs compared to current genotyping methods.
The Value of Relationships
According to Yun, DuPont Pioneer’s collaboration with UCI began when the company joined the Micro/nano Fluidics Fundamentals Focus (MF3) Center, a prior microfluidics consortium also directed by Lee that evolved into CADMIM.
“We got involved with CADMIM because we knew Abe, and we already had a collaboration relationship with UCI,” said Yun.
The current collaboration has been active for five years. Keeping this relationship going has often been challenging, both Yun and Lee mentioned, because companies and universities operate very differently. However, DuPont Pioneer has insisted on maintaining university ties despite changes in the company’s structure and priorities over the years.
“The interpersonal relationship is very important,” Lee said. “We continue to find ways to work together.”
Throughout the entire UCI-DuPont Pioneer collaboration, at least 10 students and post-docs have been trained in specialized microfluidics techniques. According to Yun, DuPont Pioneer values its participation in the CADMIM consortium, as it is part of a dynamic innovation ecosystem – a place where a community of microfluidics researchers can be tapped for ongoing expertise, and students and post-docs can be trained in multiple disciplines and with industry mentorship, and new lab-on-a-chip technology relevant to industry is developed.
DuPont Pioneer also supports the publication of research results after legal review, and while filing patents is expensive, the company will file patents on student-generated intellectual property if sufficiently novel.
“Being first to get the IP is very important for us,” said Yun. “We are very fortunate that through this university collaboration we generated a promising proof-of-concept device. This collaboration has been very fruitful. It provided a working prototype for a potential microfluidic instrument that could be utilized in our corporate laboratories. From the academic side, we are grateful to have extremely talented students working with us. The students are amazing, and the PIs are writing fantastic grant proposals. Within this partnership, we are not just thinking about our personal interests, but also stewardship. The bigger picture is building a community between collaborators.”
In October 2015 UCI was awarded a three-year standalone NSF grant totaling $1.6 million to advance prior work funded at CADMIM to the next level towards commercialization. Johns Hopkins University and DuPont Pioneer are collaborators on the award, where NSF contributes $800,000 and DuPont Pioneer provides an equal match.
“This grant enhances our relationship with the universities, and even enhances our trust with NSF,” said Yun. “The program manager was really excited about this collaboration.”
According to Yun, the next steps include more joint proposals and sponsored research. Already, UCI and DuPont Pioneer have new proposals submitted to fund additional microfluidic device development.
So far, the team working with DuPont Pioneer has developed a proof-of-concept microfluidic platform for single cell plant genotyping and has filed multiple patents. According to Lee, the partners are now working on making the technology more robust and user-friendly. Down the road, they would ultimately like to make it a turnkey instrument.
“We’d like to see the matured technology becoming more useful and widely adopted by industry, especially DuPont Pioneer,” said Lee. “This is a continuous pipeline. We are always coming up with new ideas and concepts, and having the CADMIM ecosystem as a resource has been a major advantage.”
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