Spring 2012

The Culture of Infectious Ideas

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It could be called the “Tale of Two Steves.” Steve Wozniak was the technical genius. Steve Jobs was the visionary. Inspired by a local computer-users group and surrounded by technology giants such as Hewlett-Packard and Xerox, they created the first computer for people who were not engineers or computer-science majors. Like the discovery of gold at Sutter’s Mill, the birth of Apple Computer marked an economic turning point.

It didn’t hurt that the two Steves lived near Stanford University and its culture of infectious ideas. Proximity matters.

Oregon doesn’t have quite the critical mass of Silicon Valley, but the same point applies. When creative people share ideas, new ventures emerge. A recent example in Corvallis begins with the “Tale of Todd and Scott.” That is, Todd Miller, prototyping manager of the Microproducts Breakthrough Institute, and Scott Gilbert, chemical safety officer at the MBI. Both have expertise in the science of microfluidics, the behavior of flowing liquids confined in tight spaces.

Gilbert spent years in Switzerland working on a microfluidics approach to an analytical technique known as “liquid chromatography on a chip.” He formed a company, Crystal Vision Microsystems (yes, inspired by the Fleetwood Mac song) and received support from the Swiss government. The market turned out not to be as receptive as he thought, and then came the dot-com bust in 2001. Over the next few years, Gibert found new allies in the United States, but competitors had also advanced, and when the recession hit in 2008, he pulled the plug.

It was at a Portland meeting sponsored by the Oregon Nanoscience and Microtechnologies Institute (ONAMI) that Gilbert and Miller met. Gilbert was looking for a petrochemical “micromixer,” a device that processes liquids through a honeycomb of tubes slightly wider than a human hair. Miller had developed prototypes that might do the trick. A partnership was born.

Today, Miller is president and Gilbert is chief technology office of Microflow CVO™ (CVO is the flight code for Corvallis Municipal Airport). The company has licensed technology from Oregon State University and launched its website on May 1. John Turner, Microflow CEO and OSU College of Business instructor, estimates that the global market for such devices in the life sciences alone is about $2 billion and expected to grow to $3 billion by 2014.

It’s a bit premature to put Microflow’s founding up against the origins of Apple Inc. But an estimated 47 Oregon start-up companies received private or public investment in 2011. The culture of infectious ideas is nurtured by statewide research initiatives such as ONAMI and Oregon BEST. Oregon State’s land grant mission calls us to set the stage for their success.

[Editor’s note: OSU MBA student Ken True interviewed Scott Gilbert about Gilbert’s journey from Swiss inventor to Oregon entrepreneur.]