Features

Beyond 'Eureka!'

Beyond 'Eureka!'

Photo by Dan Vaillancourt

Brandishing WPI’s legacy of innovation and entrepreneurial spirit, Edward Neister ’65 and Timothy McGreal ’04 (MS) have proven that with determination, passion, and hard work you can see a great idea to fruition. Both have formed their own companies and invented products that could ultimately save lives. On the other end of the invention spectrum is Michael Feely ’97, who is responsible for reviewing many of the 400,000 patent applications filed each year in the United States.

Ed Neister’s invention looks like a prop from the 1984 movie Ghost Busters. But instead of trapping pesky ghosts, Neister’s gadget zaps something real and much more threatening— germs.

His GermBuster Sanitation Wand, which uses Sterilray, a new type of ultraviolet lamp developed by Neister, could revolutionize the way people disinfect surfaces. By killing stubborn bacteria and viruses instantly, it could prove invaluable to health care facilities, food processing centers, germ testing laboratories, and hospitality centers, including cruise ships.

Consider this: A typical surface can have a million CFUs (coliform units) of bacteria per square centimeter, but a typical surface cleaner kills only a small percentage of those bacteria. It can take as little as 10 viral units of a norovirus to make a person sick. “What we’re saying is, there’s no better way to disinfect a surface than to use this far UV light,” Neister explains.

After graduating from WPI in 1965 with a BS in physics, Neister went on to become one of the earliest developers of products using laser technology. He has started six companies, including his current enterprise, Healthy Environment Innovations, in New Durham, N.H., and has invented several products, including a tattoo removal laser. His latest idea has turned into the GermBuster.

Neister chose to attend WPI because he “wanted a school where a student was not just a theorist but an experimentalist.” It was important for him to be able to grasp “the physics of nature, not just the calculations.”

When he began his doctoral studies at Brandeis, the potential of laser technology (still in its infancy) was too tempting for Neister’s entrepreneurial side. “It wasn’t long before I realized I didn’t want to be a nuclear physicist,” he admits. “I said, ‘It’s new technology and I’m there.’ I took a leave of absence [from Brandeis] and never went back.”

He eventually earned his MS in physics from Northeastern University, while continuing to work at AVCO and later at Honeywell in laser research. Yet, as exciting as the research was, Neister became disillusioned with the field’s lack of job security. “In 1970 I said, ‘Enough!’ and started my own company.”

Several years (and companies) later, Neister began exploring wastewater treatment using UV rays and looking for ways to apply the same process to kill surface bacteria.

Used commonly in the treatment of wastewater, rays in the UVC, or “germicidal” band, cause base pairs in the DNA molecule to bond tightly, rendering the molecule unable to replicate and microorganisms unable to reproduce. But under certain circumstances, light with longer wavelengths can weaken the base pair bonds, enabling the organisms to start reproducing again. Neister discovered that light in the far UV spectrum, with a much stronger photon energy than light from standard UV lamps, killed significantly more pathogens and actually damaged other parts of the DNA molecule. It virtually destroys all types of pathogens in less than one second. Hence, the birth of Sterilray.

“We made a simple lamp at different wavelengths, tested it at the University of New Hampshire, and saw improvement [in the destruction of a phage virus],” says Neister. At that point, he knew he had a “significant method for killing viruses on a surface.”

Though it has taken almost five years to develop fully, there’s still more testing to be done. Neister is looking at the possibility of doing bacterial and virus testing at WPI’s new Life Sciences and Bioengineering Center at Gateway Park, part of an 11-acre life sciences and bioengineering district the university is developing with the city of Worcester. He says that a partnership with WPI is likely sometime within the next year.

Neister is excited at the prospect of working with WPI again. After all, he notes, it was a great foundation for his career as scientist, inventor, and entrepreneur. “The most important thing is WPI’s ability to teach students to think for themselves,” he says. “Doing all those experiments gave you a sense that you have a bunch of doors that you must figure out how to open. You won’t get that out of books. You have to think your way through problems.”

Photo by Andy Goodwin

Fire Inpector Gadget

It was a class video that showed fire racing through a home that led Tim McGreal ’04 (MS) to develop what promises to be one of the most simple, but useful, fire safety devices available to consumers—a product that makes it possible to install and remove smoke alarms without the use of a ladder.

“It’s a simple way to access a smoke alarm from the ground,” McGreal says of AlarmArm, a product that uses an extension pole and his patented magnetic mounting system. But he’s quick to point out that making it practical was the challenge. “Having an idea is much easier than developing a commercially viable product.”

As for ideas, McGreal has a million of them. Even as a little kid he was always thinking of ways to make things work better. This time, his idea stemmed from needing additional smoke alarms in his home.

“One of the rooms had a 19-foot ceiling. I looked up and thought, ‘I need a smoke alarm there but I don’t want to climb a 16-foot ladder,’” says McGreal, who earned his degree in fire protection engineering through WPI’s Advanced Distance Learning Network. “The mock-up was done in about five minutes, but it took four years to turn it into a practical, commercially viable product.”

McGreal originally designed AlarmArm using adhesive. But it just didn’t stick. Literally. So he reworked several models and found that magnets were the best way to go. In 2005, AlarmArm won NASA’s merit award for its “Entering the Future” contest, he modestly points out. But at the end of the day, it’s not about awards; it’s about saving lives. “People really need smoke detectors in every room,” he says. “This product makes it much quicker, easier, and safer to do that.”

The AlarmArm, which McGreal will be distributing through his company, SafetyWise, isn’t his first patented product, nor is it likely to be his last. In December 2000 he received a patent for "transmission apparatus and method,” which is a 120-speed transmission for an agricultural planter, and he has a patent pending for a “torque-limiting threaded coupler,” which allows threaded plumbing and fastener components to be precisely assembled without guesswork, luck, or measuring instruments, thus preventing water damage.

While working as an auto mechanic in the mid-’80s, McGreal watched his brother, Michael McGreal ’91, launch a successful career in fire protection engineering, and thought he could do the same. Now a full-time forensic engineer for Rimkus Consulting Group in Westmont, Ill., Tim McGreal estimates he has spent nearly 6,000 hours working on the AlarmArm. He received the patent for the device in February 2005, but much of his time is now spent on finishing the design and working on production tooling. Contracting production to Adams Magnetic Products Co., he expects to start selling the device this summer—initially through catalogs, the AlarmArm website, and the Home Shopping Network/QVC. Shortly afterward, it will be sold at retail outlets, such as Home Depot, Lowe’s, Wal-Mart, and Target.

Although McGreal hadn’t stepped foot on the WPI campus until after graduating, he credits his experience with WPI’s distance learning program for the drive and patience to see an idea through to fruition. All distance-based fire protection engineering programs are taught on campus in real time and then streamed on the Internet. Each course has additional web-based content and a suite of collaboration tools that help foster interaction among faculty and students.

“One thing that was different [from a traditional college experience] was that the courses were conducive to independent work,” he says. And even though his professors were a thousand miles away, it didn’t mean he could slack off when they weren’t looking. “I remember a test that took 20-plus hours to finish over one weekend. It gave me a taste of what the real world is like—what it’s like to be an inventor, going nonstop.

As a patent examiner specializing in epoxy composition (adhesives), Mike Feely ’97 admits he doesn’t have a very sexy job. But, he asserts, it’s a great job.

“People say to me, ‘You must do some really cool stuff.’ And I say, ‘Yeah, these resins are great.’”

Though he jokes about his day-to-day work at the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO), the fact is, Feely is about as close to innovation as one can get and he takes his part in the invention process seriously.

While he may not be pursuing the career path he anticipated, Feely says he is well suited for the job, thanks to his education and previous work experience as an engineer using materials and processes similar to the ones he examines in patent applications. “WPI provided me with an excellent foundation of analytical skills and technical knowledge, along with a very important taste of the real world,” he says. “Project work was an excellent preparation for the complexities of industry and work life.”

The USPTO has about 5,000 patent examiners (most of them with specialized degrees in engineering) reviewing the nearly 450,000 patent applications the office receives yearly. Of those, about 180,000 patents are issued each year, but that still leaves a backlog of 800,000 unexamined applications. Patent examiners review patent applications to determine their validity, value, and novelty. They compare the subject matter of an application to a large body of technological information to determine whether or not a patent can be granted.

“You get a feel for what the invention is and the scope of what they’re claiming,” says Feely, who has been with the USPTO since 2000. His job requires a good deal of time management, as does his expertise as a chemical engineer. “There are numerous deadlines so you have to keep on top of your docket. Do a thorough job or it will come back to haunt you.”

Socially, it’s a far cry from the group projects that were such an important part of his experience at WPI. “Here, it’s much more of an individual work environment,” which, he says, took some adjustment.

After graduating with a BS in chemical engineering, Feely worked as an engineer for small local companies. But a few years into his second job, he decided to try something and someplace different. He had his pick of locations, but chose Washington, D.C., where he’d spent part of his junior year working on his IQP. In fact, the USPTO is gaining a reputation as being one of the best places to work in Washington. Business Week recently named the USPTO one of the top places to launch a career. Over the past three years, it has hired 2,200 new patent examiners and plans to hire an additional 1,200 each year for the next five years. “I didn’t know what to expect,” he says. “I knew I was taking a chance. But everything turned out great. It was the change of pace I was looking for.” 

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Last modified: October 01, 2007 13:29:42